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Words With Candidates

March 27, 2012, 12:15 PM

How would you describe the Republican candidates? A Washington Post/Pew Research poll conducted two weeks ago asked respondents what one word came to mind when they heard the name of different Republican candidates. 

“No” was one of the top words for each candidate. But that doesn’t really mean much. Any candidate in a competitive election is likely to get a fair number of “nos.” The interesting question is what words distinguish each candidate from the others. So I sorted through the responses to find the most common words (or sets of related words) that were associated with each candidate significantly more often than with his rivals. Then—for the important scientific reason that it was fun—I combined each candidate’s distinguishing words into a single descriptive phrase capturing what we think of them.

Mitt Romney: “Rich moderate Mormon”

None of these words were associated with any other candidate. This is not the description Mitt Romney would choose, but he could do worse. He would prefer you think of him "resolute" but no one came up with that word. Compared to most Americans, of course, the candidates are all rich. But with around $250 million, Romney really is very rich, as he can’t seem to help reminding us. And, in spite of Romney’s insistence that he is “severely conservative,” most of us don’t see him that way. Assuming he gets to the general election, he may be happy to be seen as moderate.

Rick Santorum: “Young religious conservative”

Rick Santorum would probably be pretty happy with this. Santorum was identified with variations on the term “conservative”—including “too conservative”—far more than any of the other remaining candidates. The fact that he is seen as young—he is 53—suggests that we will probably see more of him in the future. Still, it’s not a phrase you’d associate with a candidate who is poised to win a general election. It doesn't help that respondents also associated the word “crazy” with Santorum more than with any other candidate (he beat out Ron Paul by a few points).

Ron Paul: “Old honest libertarian”

This makes Ron Paul sound like some a Roman orator. No other candidate was described as libertarian. Gingrich was frequently described as old—Gingrich is 68, while Paul is 76—but nowhere nearly as often as Paul. And "honest” is obviously not a word you hear associated much with politicians. It certainly didn’t come to mind very often with Paul’s rivals (although Santorum was a clear second).

Newt Gingrich: “Brilliant untrustworthy idiot”

My favorite. People can’t seem to decide whether Newt Gingrich is brilliant or just plain dumb. But judging from the number of terms they suggesting he is either smart or idiotic, they think it must be one or the other. Either way, “untrustworthy” also came more often with Gingrich than with other candidates. Other terms that came up more often with Gingrich: “crook,” “loser,” “jerk,” and “asshole.”

Newt Gingrich image from Gage Skidmore


Words With Candidates

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