You may recall that last week, Craig Shirley & Bill Pascoe took Jon Huntsman to task for being "the GOP’s Barack Obama" ("Two more pundits who don't count", 6/21/2011). Their only fact-checkable evidence for this proposition was the observation that
In Huntsman’s announcement today, his remarks were infused with possessive pronouns, just like Obama.
Their article makes it clear that when they write "possessive pronouns", they mean to evoke the widespread idea that President Obama "is inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun", as George F. Will put it back in June of 2009. Now that Michele Bachmann has officially announced her candidacy, I thought I'd see how Jon Huntsman compares with the other announced Republican candidates on the self-referentiality dimension.
I found online copies of the texts of the candidates' announcements of their intentions to run in this presidential election cycle. I tried to use reliable sources. In every case except that of Herman Cain, the available copy was the advance text prepared for presentation and given out to the press — for Cain, all that I could find was (what claims to be) a transcript of his remarks as delivered. (Videos of the announcements are available — if anyone would like to transcribe them for comparison, I'd be interested to see the results.)
I ran a little script that counts words and various types of pronouns, and calculates the percentage of first-person singular pronouns. In decreasing order of self-referentiality, we have:
Jon Huntsman turns out to be precisely in the middle of the pack.
Does this mean that Michele Bachmann, whose announcement was most thoroughly "infused" with self-references, is the Republican candidate who is most likely to succeed Barack Obama as the "Me, Myself, and I" president?
Not by this measure. Barack Obama's 2007 announcement of his candidacy for president contained 54 FPSPs in 2635 words, for a rate of 2.05%, lower than any of the current Republican crop. The Republican candidate who is most like him on the self-referentiality dimension is Ron Paul at 2.15% FPSP usage.
Does any of this mean anything? Certainly nothing about candidates' egos, in my opinion.
Overall, there are many different kinds of self-reference, with different rhetorical force and presumptive psychological motivations. There can be specific exernal circumstances that affect a particular speech — for example, Michele Bachmann made her announcement in the Iowa town where she was born, and apparently hoped to appeal to voters in the Iowa caucuses in part by emphasizing her local roots, entailing a slightly higher proportion of first-person-singular pronouns in her speech.
And such speeches are often drafted and revised by speechwriters, with limited input from the candidate.
Given all this, there's something remarkable about the fact that dozens of pundits over the past couple of years have lent their howls to the pack-journalism chorus about Obama's pronoun use — especially given that his rates of self-reference are consistently on the low side compared to other national politicians in similar contexts.
Update — JW Brewer asked for a ranking of the announcement speeches in terms of the ratio of first-person-plural pronouns to first-person-singular pronouns. Here it is:
The comparable numbers for Obama's 2007 announcement are
FPSPs 54 ; FPPPs 126; FPPP/FPSP = 2.33.
So in fact, Huntsman is indeed the most like Obama on this measure — it's just the direction of differentiation from the rest of the group is reversed from what Shirley and Pascoe thought (or at least said) it is.