Republican self-referentiality

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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:

Words FPSPs FPSP %
Michele Bachmann 2463 89 3.61%
Herman Cain 3031 105 3.46%
Newt Gingrich 325 10 3.08%
Jon Huntsman 1480 40 2.70%
Tim Pawlenty 2401 63 2.62%
Mitt Romney 2380 55 2.31%
Ron Paul 5686 122 2.15%

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:

Mitt Romney 55 61 1.11
Herman Cain 105 118 1.12
Michele Bachmann 89 108 1.21
Tim Pawlenty 63 98 1.56
Newt Gingrich 10 16 1.6
Ron Paul 122 225 1.84
Jon Huntsman 40 98 2.45

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.


  1. Matt Deckard said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

    Love the irony of criticizing someone because "HIS remarks were infused with possessive pronouns". Wow.

  2. James Harbeck said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

    How about illeisms? Do any of the current crop score high in that department of self-referentiality? (And how did Bob Dole's famous insistent illeism compare versus the FPSP rates above?)

  3. James Harbeck said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

    Whaddya know — in (Dole's announcement) there's no illeism at all. I guess it was more of a stump speech tactic, and no doubt less evident than in Norm MacDonald's SNL parodying.

  4. Rubrick said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

    @myl: "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"

    Sadly (and cynically), I don't find it very remarkable at all. Why should the pundits care whether they're spouting complete bullshit if said bullshit plays well to their audience and no one the public cares about calls them on it? Jon Stewart would be the obvious skewerer, but unfortunately this particular issue doesn't make for very good video; a montage of Ms. Bachmann saying "I" a lot wouldn't really convey much.

    [(myl) I meant remarkable in the sense "Deserving notice or comment; worthy of remark or attention". You seem to read it in the sense "striking, unusual, singular". We're both right: what deserves notice and comment, in my opinion, is precisely how normal this behavior is.]

  5. Sili said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 6:17 pm

    dozens of pundits over the past couple of years have lent their howls to the pack-journalism chorus about Obama's pronoun use

    Skinnerian pidgeons. They perform fixed rituals irrespective of outside stimuli.

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 6:31 pm

    There's been a misunderstanding. Bachmann's FPSPs don't betray arrogance or vanity. Hers point to personal responsibility, bold ambitions, and rugged individualism. I don't have any data, as such – I can just see it in her I's.

  7. Kylopod said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 9:32 pm

    What's fascinating to me is how these sorts of arguments always prove whatever the person wants to believe about a candidate. Earlier, someone linked to a DailyKos entry from 2005 citing Bush's heavy use of "I" in an announcement of his intention to seek a new Supreme Court justice, and it was supposed to illustrate Bush's autocratic quality. But when Obama does the same thing (or is imagined to do the same thing), his conservative critics interpret it as evidence of narcissism. These were narratives that existed about each president before anyone decided to do any I-counting. It's like the old joke about the Rohrschach test.

  8. [links] Link salad legs it on into the week | said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 7:09 am

    […] Republican self-referentiality — The 'first person singular pronoun' meme is rapidly becoming one my favorite conservative delusions, in part because its counterfactuality is so patently and simply demonstrable. (So is evolution denial, but Creationism bears the imprimatur of faith, which confuses the issue for unclear thinkers.) That they fixate on it says so much about the quality of their thinking on other issues. […]

  9. pj said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 7:55 am

    Just transcribed Bachmann's speech from here: here, if anyone's interested.

    I may have made errors so if someone wants to read through as they listen, which I've not had time to do as a final check, feel free to post them and I'll fix it. And I'm British but have tried to use US spelling conventions so point out if I've missed anything there too. There are some interesting language choices/errors which would surprise me if they were in the published version too. I haven't counted FPSPs, but they certainly struck me as numerous.

    I especially enjoyed this strange image: "It may have started small, but our voice is growing louder, our voice is growing stronger, and it's made up of Americans from all walks of life like a three-legged stool."
    Got to run…

    [(myl) In your transcript, my pronoun-counting script finds 122 FPSPs in 3010 words — 4.05%.

    We should expect a slightly higher percentage in a speech as delivered compared to the prepared text, since impromptu interpolations are like to be more like conversation, where FPSP percentages are typically higher (for obvious reasons).]

  10. pj said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 8:00 am

    Oh, p.s: if you do count FPSPs in that speech, notice that two of them are Obama's, in a quote.

  11. Jason said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 8:21 am

    I am curious as how we got "possessive pronoun" to refer to FPSP.

    Extracted from self-possessed?

    [(myl) My hypothesis is "self-referential" → "selfish" → "possessive".]

  12. KeithB said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 10:03 am

    Though not directly related to the OP, it should be pointed out that Michele said in an interview related to the announcement: "Well what I want them to know is just like, John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa. That's the kind of spirit that I have, too."

    The problem? John Wayne the actor was born about 60 miles away in *Winterset*. John Wayne *Gacy* is the famous son of Waterloo. (Though he was not born there.)

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    myl: can the script you devised rank the candidates on the ratio-of-first-person-singular-to-first-person-plural feature that P&S were also invoking in their criticism of Huntsman?

    [(myl) Sure — see the body of the text (because &$%!#@ WordPress won't allow tables in comments…)]

  14. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    Re Bob Dole-style illeism: at least one of the Republican candidates appears to be an illeist — Herman Cain. He's asked about it here.

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