Republican Presidential Debate

College-level speaking not required at the GOP debates

Donald Trump gestures at the CNBC GOP Debate in Boulder, Colorado.
David A. Grogan | CNBC

In debates rife with confrontation and verbal barbs, there was one thing that wasn't a big surprise: Nobody was speaking above a high school level.

And at least one front-runner was in elementary school territory.

That's according to a Big Crunch analysis of the first three Republican debates, looking at the candidates' speech patterns — and matching to them an appropriate school-grade level. We based our analysis on the well-known Flesch-Kincaid readability test. (Some readers might remember playing with this feature on Microsoft Word when writing up school reports — to see how highbrow their writing was.)

Donald Trump is at the youngest end of the spectrum — averaging a fifth-grade level of vocabulary. And maybe that's why he's done so well in the polls: His simple, straightforward talk has resonated with the electorate. The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

But the competition isn't all that great. On the other extreme end we have Ted Cruz. He was a high school valedictorian and has degrees from Princeton and Harvard. Cruz was talented enough to be Texas solicitor general, meaning he represented the state in oral arguments in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even with those kinds of credentials, he's averaging only a ninth-grade level in the debates. And yet that grade is more advanced than anybody else on the stage.

That leaves us with one candidate speaking at a high school level, another speaking for elementary schoolers — and everybody else clustered in middle school. And these middle schoolers include a former major corporate CEO and a former neurosurgeon.

Easy speech. Small sentences. Short words. No big words. That's the key.

At future debates, expect to hear things like this:

"This country is in big trouble. We don't win anymore. We lose to China."

And ...

"We'll find solutions. And the world will respect us. They will respect us like never before."

Here's why: Complicated speech doesn't necessarily help anybody in the polls. There is no value in being over people's heads, especially if you are trying to win their emotions. As we have described here before, voter support is driven entirely by emotions, not at all by facts.

Political dialogue wasn't always this low. Over time, the level of speech has become simpler. Reports have shown that presidential speeches before 1900 were often graded for a college audience, a level of oratory reached only once since 1950: Richard Nixon's remarks on his re-election in 1972.

An analysis by researchers at the University of Minnesota showed President Barack Obama's first three State of the Union addresses had an average grade level of 8.4, the lowest in the study.

"Each of Obama's three addresses are among only seven of 70 in the modern era that were written shy of a ninth-grade level," the author wrote, "and among the six that have averaged less than 17 words per sentence."

Contrast these grade levels to the Federal Reserve's statement on monetary policy Wednesday. The grade level for that was 17. In other words, one year into graduate school. And of course, there is a pretty clear consensus that Fedspeak is a lot more dense than what you hear out of presidential candidates.

CNBC GOP Debate: The best zingers
CNBC GOP Debate: The best zingers

Researchers have also suggested that lowering the bar of political rhetoric is not necessarily a bad thing. That's because it brings the language of politics from the educated elite to the masses, making the system itself more democratic.

Even if those masses include 10-year-olds.

The Flesch-Kincaid readability tests categorize written text based on sentence and word length. Long sentences and many multisyllabic words earn a high grade level, short sentences and monosyllabic words get lower grade levels. The grade level given corresponds to U.S. grade levels. The Big Crunch used R's koRpus package for this analysis.