The power of vocabulary: Candidates that dumb it down do better

One news outlet looks at how candidates in the 2016 presidential election approach their audience when it comes to speeches.

Scott Morgan/REUTERS
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Burlington Memorial Auditorium in Burlington, Iowa, October 21, 2015.

Americans may not want a simpleton for president, but they like candidates who speak like one. 

That's according to a new analysis by the Boston Globe that rated 19 of the 2016 presidential candidates and found the ones who use the most elementary language perform best in the polls, while those who employ more complex, sophisticated speech do the worst. 

Consider the best- and worst-scorers: Donald Trump announced his candidacy in fourth-grade language according to the Globe's analysis. He's outperformed all expectations and has led almost every poll almost since he declared.  

Compare him to the candidate who, at a 10th-grade level, is spinning the most sophisticated sentences of the pack: former governor of Virginia and a Republican candidate Jim Gilmore. Never heard of him? Perhaps, given his relatively high-falutin' speech, it's no surprise. The former governor polls at less than one percent according to Public Policy Polling, so low he didn't even make the cut for the two GOP undercard debates. 

Whether it's linguistic austerity à la Ernest Hemingway or just plain inarticulateness, Americans appear to be looking for a candidate who's more Dr. Seuss than Shakespeare. In fact, political rhetoric has steadily become simpler, practically since the nation's founding, and experts say it's not necessarily a bad thing. 

For its analysis, the Boston Globe scored the announcement speeches of 19 presidential candidates, Democratic and Republican, using the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test, which takes into account the average number of words per sentence, the average number of syllables per word, and other factors, to determine at what grade level a candidate is speaking. 

The outspoken (and plainspoken) Mr. Trump, who relies heavily on words such as “very” and “great,” and attacks his foes by calling them “losers,” “haters,” “dumb,” “idiots,” “morons,” “stupid,” “dummy” and “ disgusting,” clocked in at a 4.1 grade level, the lowest of the bunch.  

"He speaks in punchy bursts that lack nuance," reports the Globe. "It’s all easily grasped, whether it’s his campaign theme (“Make America Great Again”), words about his wealth (“I’m really rich”), or his disparagement of the Washington culture (“Politicians are all talk, no action”)."

What does it tell us about the state of our democracy that a man who speaks in sound bites is soaring in the polls?

Quite simply, that in an age of snappy sound bites and 140-character Twitter tweets, candidates must communicate in pithy bursts to get voters' attention.

And even more important than getting voters' attention, simple language also helps candidates connect with voters. 

"A leader's job isn't to educate the public," Jon Favreau, a former Obama speechwriter, told the Globe. "It's to inspire and persuade them."

It's possible that simpler language also quells voters' anxiety. When the issues in the world appear more complex and threatening than ever, perhaps Americans want to feel that there's a confident leader with a simple, or at least simply-worded, solution. 

And in the case of plainspoken candidates like Trump and Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who separated conjoined twins but speaks to his supporters at a sixth-grade level, talking like "regular Americans" helps reaffirm their outsider status.

"Trump’s rejection of 'convoluted nuance' and 'politically correct norms,' mark him as authentic in certain corners and advance his cred as a plainspoken guardian of the American way. By not conforming to the standard oratorical style, he distinguishes himself from the pompous politician," Politico wrote in August. 

And it turns out that Trump's simplified speech is part of a much larger historical trend. Our politicians' rhetoric has been growing more and more elementary since the nation's founding. 

George Washington's farewell address in 1796 ranked at the graduate-degree level (Grade 17.9), while Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" in 1863 was 11th-grade complexity. John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural​ in which he uttered the famous words, ​"Ask not what your country can do for you,"​ ranked at 13.9. Today, most State of the Union addresses, including President Obama's, clock in at an 8th-grade-level. 

“It's tempting to read this as a dumbing down of the bully pulpit,” Jeff Shesol, a historian and former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, told the Atlantic last year. “But it’s actually a sign of democratization. In the early republic, presidents could assume that they were speaking to audiences made up mostly of men like themselves: educated, civic-minded landowners. These, of course, were the only Americans with the right to vote. But over time, the franchise expanded and presidential appeals had to reach a broader audience.” 

It's a secret Trump, whom nearly one-third of registered Republicans support, seems to know very well. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to The power of vocabulary: Candidates that dumb it down do better
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today