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October 12, 2000
Presidential Debates Rank at Grade School Level
By Jayson Matthews

Stop talking to me like a child, Mr. President!

Researchers at (YDC), a language portal originally developed by University of Pennsylvania Professor Robert Beard as a research tool for the linguistic community, released a study this week analyzing the current series of Presidential debates and the major-party convention acceptance speeches. After looking at patterns of word usage choices, grade reading-level appropriateness, and the use of such grammatical constructions as passive voice, the study concluded that both the Republican and Democratic candidates talk to the American public like a bunch of 14-year-olds.

Paul JJ Payack, President and CEO of the Danville-based company, says YDC analyzed the length of words and sentences, the number of paragraphs, and other parameters of language to gauge the complexity in both the presidential and vice-presidential candidates' speeches.

"The results of our analysis indicate that the grade level of the language of political debates, from the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 to current series of presidential debates, has declined from a 12th grade level to a high 7th-grade reading level," says Payack. "The research by Dr. Robert Beard's team shows that the decline of political rhetoric since the advent of televised debates in 1960 is particularly dramatic."

In current terms, YDC ranked Stephen Douglas' seven speeches during the Lincoln-Douglas debates at a 12th-grade level (11.9), while Lincoln's averaged 11.2. George Washington's Farewell Address also came in at a 12th grade reading level, as did President Franklin Roosevelt's declaration of war in December 1941.

Enter TV.

John Kennedy's readability grade level during the first nationally televised debates was 9.6, according to YDC, while Richard Nixon's was 9. Presidents Carter and Ford brought the bar up slightly to a tenth grade level during their debates, but were quickly followed by the 9th grade stylings of Reagan and Mondale in 1984.

Strangely, the study showed no correlation between reading level and electoral success. While Michael Dukakis linguistically outpaced George Bush Sr.'s 6.7 average by nearly two grades, Bush resoundingly trounced the Democratic candidate in the 1988 election. Yet nearly the exact reverse occurred between President Clinton and Bush during the following election, with Clinton's speech ranking up near Dukasis's 8.85 grade level. Clinton continued the trend when he defeated Bob Dole the following term, registering 8.3 to 6.3 respectively.

"This brings us to the first Bush-Gore debate of 2000," says Payack. "In the first presidential debate, Gore's readability score was 8.4 (identical with Clinton's average over his two debates), while Bush scored 7.1, actually half a grade-level higher than his father."

Going as far as to count specific words in the candidates' speeches, YDC also documented that Gore used the word "America" only twice in his speeches, while Bush used it 17 times.

"One thing is for sure," says Payack, "the 'federal government' was on Bush's mind much more than Gore's; Bush used the term a total of 35 times to Gore's 10. Apparently, it worries Bush more than Gore."

In terms of word usage, taxes also appear a concern to both candidates, with Bush mentioning taxes 33 times to Gore's 25.

In other news, both vice-presidential candidates scored considerably higher than their potential bosses. YDC ranked Democratic candidate Joe Lieberman at 9.9, while Bush's second-in-command Dick Cheney peaked at 9.1.

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