Recently, the Boston Globe did an analysis of 19 presidential candidates’ campaign announcement speeches using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. The formula grades written prose in three categories: characters per word, syllables per word, and sentence structure.
The results of the analysis are more disappointing than surprising, but point to an important trend in American political speech.
On the GOP side, the two candidates whose speeches were given the highest ratings are buried deep in the polls. Both former Gov. Jim Gilmore, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee used language in their announcement speeches at just above a 10th-grade level. As for the front-runners, Dr. Ben Carson and Donald Trump, both gave speeches below the level of a 6th-grader.
Donald Trump was given the lowest marks among every candidate in all three categories.
The Globe‘s report highlights a downward trend in the sophistication of language used by politicians, as State of the Union speech scores have decline fairly steadily since John F. Kennedy was President in the early 1960’s. Kennedy’s average State of the Union address was given at the level of a college under-graduate, while the average address by President Obama has been delivered at the comprehension level between an 8th and 9th-grader.
By comparison, George Washington’s “Farewell Address” letter “To the People of the United States” in 1796 was written at the level of a graduate student.
“A leader’s job isn’t to educate the public – it’s to inspire and persuade them,” explained former Obama speech writer Jon Favreau. “That requires meeting people where they are, and speaking in words that are easily accessible to the broadest possible audience.”
Apparently Congress is listening to the President’s advisers on this count, as a 2012 analysis of Congressional floor speeches shows a decline in sophistication of language from an 11th to a 10th-grader since 1996.
Below is a graphic showing the scores of announcement speeches for all current presidential candidates:
[Boston Globe] [Sunlight Foundation]