Cat-in-the-Hat Politics

Suggests that many Americans, when choosing who to vote for in the presidential election, choose the man whose words least overestimate his literacy. Mary-An Leon and T. Harrell Allen of California State; Analyzing candidates' comments; Eighth-grade level; Bush/Dukakis example.

By PT Staff, published on March 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Election Debates

IT'S ALMOST TIME TO CHOOSE A President again, so you can count on televised debates and analysis by political pundits.

No one knows for sure how the debates actually influence our voting decision. But the findings of a team of California researchers offers a disturbing suggestion: It may be simply that Americans choose the man whose words least overestimate his literacy.

Some candidates are more successful than others in getting their messages across in presidential debates, report Mary-Ann Leon and T. Harrell Allen, of California State Polytechnic University. They are the ones who talk to us as if we were in the eighth grade.

Leon and Allen analyze candidates' comments by holding them up against the standards applied in readability tests, in such areas as grammar and sentence length. They let the computer do the sentence-crunching on transcripts of two 1988 presidential debates.

By these standards, George Bush proved easier to understand than Michael Dukakis. In both debates, Bush's remarks were at the eighth-grade reading level, making them comprehensible to more than two-thirds of Americans.

Dukakis, on the other hand, spoke in longer, more complex sentences. His words scored at the 10th- and 12th-grade level, comprehensible to only about half the audience.

Just like the computer, most political pundits at the time gave winning marks to Bush. Good thing they didn't put it through a mathematics program. Then we'd know for sure it's called the lowest common denominator.

Photo: BUSH'S ADVICE: Go to the back of the class--and win the election. ((c) Dirck Halstead/Gamma-Liaison)