Christian R. Grose
University of Southern California
Jason A. Husser
April 3, 2008
Can voters be persuaded to support a candidate based on a candidate’s communication skills instead of a candidate’s issue positions? Combining theoretical insights on voter decision-making drawn from valence theories of candidate-position taking with insights from theories of rhetoric and persuasion, we argue that candidate rhetoric can sway voters to a candidate’s side. We examine the sophistication and style of candidate speech in U.S. presidential elections from 1976-2004 using Flesch-Kincaid grade-level measures and Diction measures of presidential speech. We find that more sophisticated campaign speech by a candidate results in a higher likelihood that a citizen will vote for that candidate, though this effect of linguistic sophistication is conditioned by voter cognition. The most highly educated voters are most likely to use the non-policy dimension of complex rhetoric in casting their vote. This finding runs contrary to the conventional wisdom that higher educated voters – because of their cognitive abilities – would be most likely to vote ‘rationally’ based primarily on issue preferences. We also find that candidates who present themselves using language that draws on themes of commonality, activity, and realism are more likely to win a citizen’s vote in the election. These results suggest that rhetoric matters: it can sway voters, but it also suggests that soaring and powerful rhetoric can be offset when the voter perceives high ideological congruence with the rhetorically-disadvantaged candidate.