Elections Are Influenced By Candidates’ Vocabularies!

Vocabulary influences presidential election results.

We vote for people we trust. We trust people who speak our language.

Vocabulary is a very important aspect of communication, and of trust. Are you conscious of they kind of vocabulary being used during this election race? Are you aware of the ways that candidate’s vocabularies influence your trust? And what does this mean for the kind of candidate are you most likely to trust?

As we all ramp up for another round of presidential elections, the nation will be frenzied with all sorts of opinions and theories and new information concerning the different candidates.

We all have our preferences and agendas and opinions, and thankfully live in a nation where they can be freely expressed and voted upon.

I’m not going to write about my opinion on who should or shouldn’t be elected (there’s already plenty of that out there on the internet) – instead, I’m here to add an interesting variable concerning election results.

Candidates’ vocabulary plays a large role in determining who votes for them, and that this aspect is mostly subconscious to the populace. Most of us hardly realize the reasons we trust the candidates that we do. In fact, a big factor that plays into this is the vocabulary that that particular presidential hopeful uses.

A good example is in the 2004 race between John Kerry and George Bush.

Kerry, it seemed, spoke in a very professional manner, and used complex words. His working vocabulary was and still is very advanced, showing his education and obvious intelligence. He carefully crafts his speeches to deliver a precise, exact style of communication to his audience.

Bush, in comparison, seemed to speak more simply. His vocabulary was common, and his delivery was less “practiced” and professional. The words he used were more of everyday vernacular.

Bush said things like, “talk about” whereas Kerry chose “address”, or “should” when Kerry said “ought”.

Both Kerry and Bush graduated from Yale with nearly identical average grades. Bush went on through Harvard for his M.B.A., and Kerry went to Boston College Law School. Clearly, both candidates were extremely well educated.

And yet, Kerry spoke at a much higher level than Bush, it seemed. Wouldn’t this be a desirable quality in a candidate, for those voting for him? If so, then why did Bush end up winning that election (excepting involvement of outside circumstances like the Supreme Court’s ruling)?

Let’s look at our current president – Barack Obama. What about his vocabulary when addressing the nation?

Obviously, to be even considered for President, a candidate must have an incredible vocabulary, and Obama was no exception. Like Kerry, Obama is a lawyer by training but a man with common roots. Did the way in which he utilized his language to communicate to potential voters influence his back-to-back elections?

I believe it did. Obama used words that the common man would understand, and simplified concepts and ideas so that the populace could comprehend them. He did not use lofty terms or expressions that would alienate the public, since the vast majority of them were less educated than he (Obama graduated from Columbia and Harvard).

His somewhat halting method of speech gave the impression to the more academic viewers that he knew what he wanted to get across, but had to pause to gather his thoughts in order to phrase them in a way that would be simple to understand. The sophisticated audiences felt that he could communicate on their level, but worked to abridge himself in order to be understood and trusted by those with a common vocabulary.

But does the vocabulary used in promotional speeches and addresses actually affect the outcomes of the elections?

Well, Bush beat Kerry in 2004, and Obama beat McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012. Was this completely attributed to their vocabulary? Definitely not, and I’m not arguing that it was. However, there is reason to believe that it definitely played a role.

Humans trust those candidates who speak on a similar level to themselves. There are many sources out there that examine the connection between trust and language, communication, or speech.

Charles Feltman wrote a good article about trust and language in the workplace, and that everyone can intentionally build and sustain trust through their language. The Ivey Business Journal posted a piece about leaders using communication to build trust, and how fundamental the style of communication is to being trusted by those who are being communicated to. Finally, the US National Library of Medicine published an interesting academic article talking about the importance of physician-patient communication, and how the vocabulary used plays a large role in establishing trust in that relationship.

Obviously, vocabulary, language, and communications are very important elements impacting trust levels between humans, and this is especially true when concerning presidential elections.

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Being spoken to with too high a level of vocabulary induces feelings of confusion, leading to distrust

It’s a natural response for us to trust those candidates who sound like us. We quite naturally develop an aversion to the candidates who speak with a vernacular more advanced than we use – we can’t quite understand everything, and get the feeling that we’re being swindled or conned; that the person is trying to baffle and impress us into agreeing with them. We distrust them, then, since we feel like we’re being duped.

On the contrary, we feel a kinship; a connection or subconscious affiliation with those candidates running in the presidential election who use a vocabulary similar to our own. We are more likely to trust the things they say, and to believe their promises, when they are phrased in words that we regularly use and understand.

To further elaborate on this concept, it is important to understand that there are three main levels of vocabulary:

  1. Common
  2. Business/professional
  3. Executive/academic

These dictate the portion of the population that will trust the candidates that talk on each level.

For example, if one of the presidential hopefuls speaks and understands the “Business/professional” level, those are the people that will trust him or her. The “Executive/academic” level speakers will find themselves connecting with the candidate that speaks more eloquently than the “Business/professional” level, and the “Common” speakers will distrust both hypothetical candidates because they are not being spoken to on a colloquial level, and it is just foreign enough to provoke feelings of skepticism and aversion.

This is not to say that the only people that you will ever vote for are those with the same level of vocabulary – that would be ridiculous. PLOS features a blog post elaborating on just how many things play into and influence our decision on who to vote for. But it is proven that on a general trend, and especially with communication between strangers such as is exemplified in a presidential election, humans trust those with whom they share a similar vocabulary level.

Peter Meyers is a communications expert who would even go so far as to say that every election can be predicted by the communication style of the candidates running!

As the election process develops and continues, look for the ways that the candidates use the element of vocabulary. Do they speak way above you? Does that make you trust or distrust them? Do they communicate with you on a level that you understand?

It will be interesting to see how vocabulary plays a role in next year’s elections. It’s a small, yet powerful aspect of communication and persuasion that can be harnessed by anyone and used to their advantage.


To find out what percentile of general vocabulary mastery you fall into, visit TestEts and take the Highlands Ability Battery. Enlighten yourself as to how vocabulary can be used as a tool, the level that you speak with and understand, and how this may be swaying your feelings of trust concerning voting for the presidential elections.

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