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Debates: Linguistic Trick Boosts Poll Numbers

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U.S. presidential candidates Donald J. Trump (left) and Hillary Rodham Clinton prior to their first debate.

Researchers at the University of Michigan say participants in U.S. presidential debates who mimic subtle aspects of their opponent's speech receive a bump in their poll numbers as a result.

Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A University of Michigan (U-M) study of U.S. presidential debates between 1976 and 2012 found mimicking subtle aspects of an opponent's language better engages a third-party audience and leads to a bump in the polls.

Linguistic style matching refers to the matching of function words, such as "also," "but," and "somewhat," and other supporting parts of speech.

"These function words are inherently social, and they require social knowledge to understand and use," says U-M professor Daniel Romero. "We think that matching an opponent's linguistic style shows greater perspective taking and also makes one's argument's easier to understand for third-party viewers."

Researchers examined the transcripts of 26 debates over 36 years of presidential election seasons. Each candidate was rated on the degree to which they matched their opponent in eight different style markers.

Researchers found frequent style matchers enjoyed a median one-point bump in Gallup polls following the debate. No candidate excelled at linguistic matching consistently, and poll data did not always correlate with election outcomes.

In 1976, Gerald Ford received a style matching score of .02 in the first debate, and his poll numbers spiked 6.5%. Conversely, Jimmy Carter's score was -0.53, and his poll numbers dropped by 2%. However, Carter won the presidency.

From University of Michigan News
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