×

Are you smarter than a Democratic candidate?

Sen. Bernie Sanders takes part in the Democratic presidential debate, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas.
Getty Images
Sen. Bernie Sanders takes part in the Democratic presidential debate, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas.

You could be forgiven if you can't tell whether we're electing a U.S. president or a class president.

None of the presidential candidates — of either party — is speaking above a high school level, according to a Big Crunch analysis of statements made in the four debates that have been held.

After our analysis of the Republican presidential candidates, our avid readers were curious about the speech patterns on the other side of the aisle. We ran the same analysis on the Democrats' first debate — there's only been one, so our sample size was a little more limited.

Overall, the Dems spoke at a slightly higher grade level in their first debate than the Republicans overall. Still, no one used words or sentence structures that couldn't be easily understood by a high school freshman.

We based our analysis on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. The test uses sentence length and word complexity to determine the text's grade level equivalent in the American school system.

At the highest grade level was Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland. His language and statements earned him a grade level of 9.5, putting him on par with a mid-year high school freshman. That could be one reason O'Malley is struggling in the polls — voters often connect better with plain-spoken politicians.

Even his most distant competition wasn't that far off. That's Lincoln Chafee with a grade level of 6.6. Chafee and Jim Webb have since dropped out of the Democratic race. Hillary Clinton's score, 8.5, was about average among the Democrats.

It's no surprise that presidential candidates would speak below a high school level. A good portion of the electorate does not have college degrees and besides, who would tune in to the debates if they only featured dry college professors? The inventors of the Flesch-Kincaid tests worked with newspaper editors to make articles accessible to a broader audience. (This article clocks in at 8.2, in case you were curious.)

It's often regarded as a cunning political strategy for politicians to speak at a lower level. That's because complex speech doesn't really appeal to voters. Data show that they pay more attention to emotions than facts and the thrust of a logical argument.

There are several reasons the Republicans could be speaking at lower levels than the Democrats. For one thing, having 10 or 11 pols on stage means each candidate gets less time, and that could lead to rushed statements and shorter sentences. They could also be trying to appeal to a different type of voter.

As we've reported, political rhetoric has become simpler over time. Only one presidential speech since 1950 has reached a level graded for a college audience, though that was standard before 1900. 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 fewer than 17 words per sentence.