The Arithmetic of Convention Speeches: How Last Night's Speech Added Up

09/07/2012 10:44 am ET | Updated Nov 07, 2012

Two weeks of Republican and Democratic conventioneering concluded last night with President Barack Obama's speech accepting the nomination of his party. Whether one considered his speech brilliant oratory or just a good effort, in many ways it was typical of nomination acceptance speeches given by incumbent presidents in recent times.

To echo a recent theme, let's do the arithmetic.

Looking at convention acceptance speeches by both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates between 1980 and 2012, incumbents tended to receive more applause breaks from the crowd, mentioned their opponent less frequently and almost never mentioned their predecessor. For Obama, last night's speech was interrupted 75 times by applause, up from 67 during his speech in 2008. He mentioned his opponent Mitt Romney just once, whereas in 2008 he mentioned John McCain 21 times (the most mentions of an opponent by any nominee, Republican or Democrat, since 1980). And Obama did not mention his predecessor George W. Bush once last night, compared to eight mentions in 2008.


Democratic incumbent nominees tended to use more humor and get more laughs than non-incumbent nominees, and their audiences were less likely to boo at the mention of their opponents. Obama received six laughs from the Charlotte audience and there was no outburst of booing the opponent. In 2008, the audience laughed just twice and booed three times. Incidentally, for Republican incumbent nominees, the exact opposite was true - their audiences laughed less and booed more compared to Republican non-incumbent nominees.

The only arithmetic departure from the norm in last night's speech was that it was shorter than Obama's 2008 speech by 365 words (8% shorter). Other nominees from both parties going back to 1980 gave longer speeches as incumbents than they did when they were challengers. President Clinton set the record on this score: his 1996 convention speech was 60 percent longer than his 1992 speech at 7,073 words (average is 4,683 for Democratic nominees).

Pres. Barack Obama's Nomination Acceptance Speech

September 6, 2012

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Moving from arithmetic to language arts, Obama's convention speech was consistent with the campaign objective of making the 2012 election a choice rather than a referendum. Using frequency analysis of the terms used most often throughout the speech, the words "choice" and "choose" appeared a combined 20 times, more than any other term or concept except for "America/Americans" which appeared a combined 24 times.

If anyone thought Obama's speech would be less "hopey-changey" than last time, they would be only half right. The speech was actually more "hope"-full (sorry, couldn't resist), in that the word "hope" was mentioned 14 times in his 2012 speech compared to four times in 2008. But of course, as the incumbent, he only mentioned change seven times compared to 17 times in 2008. Other prominent terms such as "believe" and "future" combined to create an overall optimistic narrative arc to last night's speech.

On a policy level, "jobs" was prominent, along with other employment-related terms such as "pay" and "workers." And in a pointed contrast with his opponent, Obama mentioned "war" nine times.

Word clouds show the 50 words most frequently used by each of the nominated Democratic presidential candidates at their respective conventions from 1980 through 2012. Visualizations were generated using

Word clouds of Democratic nominees' convention speeches since 1980