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Political text analysis: The Times counts debate words

October 31st, 2007 by Joshua Tauberer · 6 Comments

The New York Times has an interesting flash application that breaks down the text of yesterday’s Democratic debate (there was a debate? UPDATE: And it was in my own city??) by speaker and shows visually the distribution of who spoken when through the debate. I mention it here because it’s one of these data transformations very much in the same spirit of what I keep pushing here. They took the transcript, made it visual and interactive, and the end result is a vastly different view onto the debate than anyone had before. It uses the same transcript as anyone else, but adds something very new and informative.

One can’t help but notice that the different candidates are not getting the same amount of speaking time. Clinton spoke more than 3.5 times more words, and the same for speaking time, than Biden. For that matter, basically so did the moderator, who held the floor for more time than anyone but Clinton. It’s no wonder that Clinton is considered “the Democrat to beat” considering she’s in our face more.

If the numbers weren’t so vastly different between the candidates, we’d chalk it up to some random variation that happens from debate to debate. But, from the numbers, the speaking times are clearly planned. It’s so clear that I feel like maybe I missed something. Is it common knowledge that the debates are proportioning time out to the candidates based on their poll numbers (or something equivalent)? It’s not just that the front-runners are getting more time. The statistical correlation is ridiculously high (speaking time versus FOX News/Opinion Dynamics Poll. Oct. 23-24: r=.96). That is, the debate organizers are basically using this formula to determine how much time each candidate should get:

Speaking Time = 8:26 minutes + 25 seconds * Latest Poll Number (%)

Of course, debate organizers can’t control exactly how long each candidate talks for, but the candidates only deviated from the formula by at most two minutes and twenty seconds (Biden, who spoke less, and DoddCORRECTED: Edwards, who spoke more).

So now I’m getting off topic a bit, but in any case: transformations on data can be very revealing!

Tags: OpenHouse · data visualization

6 responses so far ↓

  • Greg Palmer » Blog Archive » links for 2007-11-01 // Oct 31, 2007 at 7:32 pm

    [...] Political text analysis: The Times counts debate words | The Open House Project This is an interesting post by Josh. (tags: politics elections) [...]

  • The cynical take on the debate speaking times | The Open House Project // Nov 2, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    [...] archives ← Political text analysis: The Times counts debate words [...]

  • Transcript Analysis; Delicious Links | The Open House Project // Nov 4, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    [...] I’m loving the conversation about debate transcripts that Josh just posted about, because it’s a great example of information becoming increasingly public, even though it was in plain sight all along. All public televised debates are, by their nature, quite public. The transcript or video/audio, however, has been less available, so much that the battle over their fair use continues even now. [...]

  • The last debate time analysis | The Open House Project // Dec 14, 2007 at 8:33 am

    [...] A little out of the scope of this blog, but I wrote previously about how the previous two democratic presidential debates were proportioning out speaking time to the candidates based roughly (if not entirely) on their poll numbers. In the 10/30 MSNBC debate, the correlation between speaking time and poll numbers was near perfect (a, b), with the leading candidate holding the floor more than 3.5 times as long as one of the trailing candidates. The proportioning of time was clearly planned, and I say this is a bad thing because viewers have a right to know that the TV network is deliberately skewing our view of the election by putting some candidates in our face more than others. The 11/15 CNN debate had still a very high correlation between speaking time and poll numbers, though not as high as the first debate, but nevertheless one of the leading candidates held the floor three times longer than one of the trailing candidates (c). [...]

  • ellen // Mar 25, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    what can you say about syntactic peculiarities of political debates?

  • Joshua Tauberer // Mar 28, 2008 at 6:44 am

    Ah, syntax, my formerly favorite field of linguistics. :) Sadly I have no useful knowledge on the subject of syntax-meets-politics. If I had to wager, though, I would say that there is probably nothing interesting to note about any syntactic peculiarities in debates…

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