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Whether we like it or not, the adage that “these days, we sell our candidates like we sell our soft drinks” is largely true. Any political strategist—especially those in the rarefied air of a presidential election—knows the importance of branding and messaging in electoral politics. And at the end of the day, the simple fact is this: Words matter.
Even in the strangest, most unpredictable election cycles of our generation, the power of words in service to an electoral strategy remains undiminished. Just ask our remaining candidates—each has experienced one snafu or another because of the words they chose to explain a position.
All of these gaffes generated a large amount of media coverage. So, how are the remaining five presidential candidates doing in their use of words to promote their candidacies? And how are words being used against them?
A recent analysis using LexisNexis Newsdesk to monitor media gave us the answer. Based on a reading of branding efforts, choice of issues, tone of voice, electoral strategy, past news coverage and other factors, each candidate was assigned four positive and four negative words, based on whether the word helped (positive, on-brand) or hurt (negative, off-brand) the candidate’s election effort.
LexisNexis then analyzed recent media coverage to chart the prevalence of positive and negative words used by the media to describe each candidate.
Aided by the sheer volume of coverage, the runaway winner in positive mentions was Republican Donald Trump, who had four times the total number of articles containing one or more of his positive, on-brand words than all other candidates—Republican and Democrat—combined. Nearly 70 percent of those articles contained the word 'frontrunner,' which Trump uses to make his candidacy appear to be a fait accompli—and diminish his rivals’ perceived chances in the meantime.
Hillary Clinton was a distant second in volume. Like Trump, 'frontrunner' was the most-mentioned positive word about Clinton. Will each of these candidates become their respective party’s nominee? Only time will tell.
Rounding out remaining candidates were Ted Cruz with 'conservative,' John Kasich with 'positive,' and Bernie Sanders with 'movement' as the most-mentioned positive words used in media coverage about each individual…all of which coincide with the candidate’s perceived brand. Cruz touts himself as a 'true conservative' leader, Kasich continues to preach running a 'positive' campaign despite the tomato-throwing between his counterparts and Sanders continues to identify his rise in the polls as a new 'movement' against the establishment.
When it comes to off-brand words, Clinton and Sanders were about even in the number of articles that cast them in a negative light. In fact, the number of articles which report negatively on both of the Democratic nominees is far higher than the negative articles covering Republican candidates.
Clinton’s lead negative word was 'establishment,' followed closely by 'scandal'—a clear indication that despite her best efforts, her use of a private email server is still widely covered by members of the media and casts a shadow on her campaign. Sanders’ negative word was far and away 'socialist,' mentioned in 78 percent of the articles.
On the Republican side, Trump’s lead negative word was 'violence,' mentioned in 73 percent of articles within the past month following a few contentious, passionate moments during his campaign stops.
'Dishonest' (49 percent) and 'politician' (40 percent) were the lead negative words for Cruz, while Kasich had the word 'establishment' used in 54 percent of the articles about his run for president.
How are the words affecting each candidates’ campaign? We have yet to see if there are lasting effects, but we can look to Trump as a case study. He’s experienced a rise in negative articles over the past month, which in turn, seems to be adversely impacting his numbers at the polls. (We’re looking at you, Wisconsin.)
There is little doubt this election—primary and general—has lots of surprises left in store. Veteran political watchers and practitioners know, though, that the ability to define your candidate positively and your opponent negatively is a key factor in any election. And that comes down to words—perhaps today more than any other time.