September 15, 2008

McCain vs. Obama on the Web

Language

Amid the technology, what is it the two candidates are trying to project about themselves online?

To find out, PEJ combed through the text of the most universal and permanent sections of the sites—candidate biographies, issues and speeches.

In general, we found that Obama tends to stress domestic policy and the economy, while McCain focuses broadly on national security and his experience in the military and government.

The Most Common Keywords (Minus Speeches)

The word ‘America’ (including ‘American’ and ‘Americans’) is the leading term on both sites, appearing a collective 63 times in the candidates’ biography and issue sections alone. Obama’s Web site employs the terms slightly more than McCain’s (36 to 27 mentions), but it’s important to note that the Republican uses fewer words altogether on his site and “America” is used more than twice as often as any other. [1]

A reference to Obama’s brief Senate career is the No. 2 term in the biography and issues sections (“Senator” 15 times and “Senate” 10, second only to “America.” The site refers to Obama as “Senator Obama” (14 times).

McCain’s Web site, by contrast, refers to him as “Senator McCain” just 6 times. Instead, the site refers to the candidate as “John McCain” far more often—a total of 45 times.

“Change We Can Believe In” is the mantra of the Obama campaign, but the word “change” does not often appear inside the content pages. It appears at the top of every page as a quotation from Obama’s stump speech. But it was not among the 20 most frequently used terms in our language search of biography and issues.

Instead, the word shows up as one of the most-used words of McCain’s site (the site employs it six times). Two of the instances refer to the need to change the political culture in Washington, two refer to climate change, and the other two refer to his support for changing the course of Iraq War policy to include additional troops.

The Obama Web site makes a special effort to appeal to rural voters. The Web site includes an entire issue section to the concerns of American farmers. The Web site also employs the word “rural” across different issue sections to stress common interests among urban and rural Americans. For example, in laying out his education plan, the Obama site reads “Obama believes that we must equip poor and struggling districts, both rural and urban, with the support and resources they need to provide disadvantaged students with an opportunity to reach their full potential.”

“Government” is one of the McCain Web site’s most-employed words. The references cluster around two themes—eliminating government waste and its size and reforming government in Washington to serve the public interest.

The Obama campaign uses the word “political” in two ways—to reinforce Obama’s political experience, and to repeat his pledges to end the “politically charged” nature of Washington.

The McCain Web site indicates the perceived success of “the surge” in its use of the word “Iraq.” Obama’s site refers to Iraq mostly in the context of the candidate’s position on ending U.S. military involvement there, but the term is not among those mostly frequently used.

McCain, in turn, makes little use of three terms that speak to domestic priorities: “children,” “families” and “help.”

The Obama Web site employs these terms most often in reference to ensuring middle-class economic security. The Democratic economic message centers around “working families,” poverty and investments needed to strengthen the economy and “help” families and children in need. But Obama also highlights his support for a “family values” message about the importance of parenting and family in raising children.

McCain uses “service” and “experience” both to accentuate his military service, but also to turn his age into an advantage as a candidate with “experience” and the judgment necessary to make difficult decisions as president.

Speeches

Speeches comprise the single largest share of informational text on both candidates’ Web sites, and most closely articulate the campaigns’ boilerplate messages. Speeches are another medium where the candidate and campaign have tight control over content, message and tone. Speeches on Obama’s site stretch as far back as 2002, when the one-time Illinois state senator gave remarks in opposition to going to war with Iraq. McCain’s are more recent, from March 2008 to the present.

Through an examination of the most frequently used words in speeches archived on the candidates’ Web sites as of August 6, 2008, PEJ found that Obama is more likely than McCain to address policy issues. The presumptive Democratic nominee focuses on energy, oil and jobs in 161 public addresses posted to his Web site.

The Democrat encapsulates the message of “New Energy for America” in his speeches, sketching what he calls a “comprehensive” plan that includes energy rebates, getting off of foreign oil, creating “green jobs,” and lastly, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Employment is the issue most often addressed by McCain in speeches, but by and large the Republican senator appeals to a perception of his supporters’ patriotism, invoking “America” “American(s)” and “country” a combined total of 252 times in the course of 47 speeches.

The relationship among these words indicates a strong emphasis on McCain’s own patriotism as well, perhaps in an attempt to draw a distinction from Obama, who has been the subject of rumors questioning the Illinois senator’s “love of country” that have been distributed via e-mail and covered by the mainstream press.

Education is a less dominant, but recurring theme in speeches by McCain. “Education,” “public,” and “school” appear near each other in the text, and the three terms are used at about the same rate. These terms, on the other hand, do not appear in a search of the 20 most frequent terms used by Obama in speeches.


FOOTNOTE:
1. PEJ searched among 2,672 words on Obama’s Web site, compared with 2,451 on McCain’s.