Hooked With Phonetics: The Strategic Use of Style-Shifting in Political Rhetoric

Dissertation committee: Burt Monroe, Michael Nelson, Bruce Desmarais, Rebecca Passonneau

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The study of non-policy representation has emphasized written or verbal communication by representatives, neglecting the crucial non-verbal component of symbolic representation. I argue that, in order to convince their constituents that they are “like them” and will act in their interests, politicians project likeness through the way they talk. When speaking to an audience of ordinary citizens, a politician will play the “average Joe;” when addressing a congressional committee, they will demonstrate sophistication and competence. Hence, political speakers shift their style according to the audience. I test this hypothesis using audio data from congressional and campaign speeches of U.S. senators uploaded to YouTube. I extract the acoustic properties of the audio signal and measure vowel space density, a concept developed in phonetics, to categorize the degree of articulation in speech. The results suggest that politicians do adjust their articulation to fit the needs of their audience. This effect is greater for female senators, who also speak with a higher degree of formality in general.