The geography of presidential campaign speeches

Presidential candidates give speeches all over the country during their campaigns. Are they saying different things in different places? We mapped campaign speeches by John McCain and Barack Obama to find out. (See our blog post for some details on this project and its data.)

Word clouds

The first part of this little project was to display the most frequently used words by each candidate as word clouds on the map. The intent was to provide an interactive map in which these clouds would merge together as dictated by the space allowed at different scales, giving varied geographic perspectives. When zoomed out, you'd see the most common words by region, and as you zoomed in they'd break apart into sub-regions and localities. Here's a look at the national level, for example:

Speech word clouds

Other priorities got in the way of a properly functioning map happening before the election, so for now I'll provide national maps at three different scales (including the one above). The map could probably be zoomed in one more level than the largest here, but these images provide a mostly complete picture of what would be possible.

As usual, blue indicates words by Obama, the Democrat, and red indicates words by McCain, the Republican. Not factored into these word clouds are about 60 common words that were pretty clearly filler and not inherently meaningful.

Click on the two preview images below to see larger maps.

medium scale preview large scale preview


Individual word maps

Another view is achieved by searching for a specific word or phrase. The following maps show a selection of words as quasi-proportional symbols representing the frequency of use by John McCain (red) and Barack Obama (blue) at various campaign stops from May until about a week before the election. The size of each symbol represents the number of times a word was used as a proportion of the total words spoken in that speech (or at that location, if there was more than one speech).

Interested in a word or phrase you don't see here? Check out the blog post and comment to make a request.


One for you, nineteen for me

"Tax" by McCain and Obama

Obama has more variation here, but in general both candidates use the words a decent amount and especially in the Midwest and East Coast. McCain's heaviest usage appears to have been in Washington, DC and Philadelphia. Obama's, by a larger margin, looks to be in New Hampshire, where as you know citizens are required to "live free or die." Obama appears to oppose the death of New Hampshirites.

'tax' by John McCain 'tax' by Barack Obama


Just trying to get paid

"Jobs" by McCain and Obama

Obama has, predictably, spoken about "jobs" a lot in places like Ohio and Michigan. The lack of data for McCain unfortunately makes it a bit difficult to compare these places. It looks like Obama in general might be talking about jobs—a common Democratic issue—a bit more than McCain, but the geography doesn't look terribly different.

'jobs' by John McCain 'jobs' by Barack Obama


It's the _____, stupid

"Economy" by McCain and Obama

The broader word for this year's big issue looks rather even across the country for both candidates. The word is used somewhat often in most places, with a handful of speeches where it wasn't used much. Obama looks to use the word more often overall.

'economy' by John McCain 'economy' by Barack Obama


An apple a day

"Health care" by McCain and Obama

Ah, here's one with an interesting pattern. McCain looks consistent, but Obama's talking "health care" a lot more in Virginia and North Carolina than other places.

'health care' by John McCain 'health care' by Barack Obama


Or you could give that apple to a teacher

"Education" by McCain and Obama

Obama emphasizes "education" in parts of the Midwest, but what's interesting here is that McCain often just isn't talking about it.

'education' by John McCain 'education' by Barack Obama


It's all about you, the fans

"You" by McCain and Obama

Both candidates are talking in the second person a decent amount, but Obama is doing it a lot more. Perhaps this is both a part of populist themes and a response to enthusiastic participation by supporters of Obama' campaign.

'you' by John McCain 'you' by Barack Obama


It's all about me, the star

"I" by McCain and Obama

Obama was once characterized as the celebrity candidate, but it looks like both candidates are talking up their rock star status across the board. It's no surprise in this era of voting on character and personality. Further, candidates have got to explain what they'll do for the country and convince the electorate of their personal qualifications.

'I' by John McCain 'I' by Barack Obama


The other guy

"Obama" by McCain and "McCain" by Obama

The use of the other candidate's name is probably an indication of attacking (or, more mildly, drawing a contrast with) the opponent. These maps might show where a candidate emphasizes his own strengths and where he emphasizes his opponent's weaknesses. Obama is perhaps doing less of the latter, but again the lack of McCain data makes it a bit difficult to tell. The geographic patterns don't jump out as starkly different.

'Obama' by John McCain 'McCain' by Barack Obama


The other guy's other guy

"Biden" by McCain and "Palin" by Obama

No matter how much media attention a vice presidential candidate receives, the presidential candidates basically ignore the opponent's running mate.

'Biden' by John McCain 'Palin' by Barack Obama


In summary

What's more interesting than any distinct patterns seen in these and other maps is the lack of distinct patterns in most cases. While some issues matter more to certain parts of the country, many (if not most) are of at least some level national importance. Probably even more important, though, is that in the age of 24-hour news networks and the internet, campaign speeches spread far beyond their local audiences.

In exploring these maps and data, three types of speeches stood out as destroying or masking geographic patterns:

More on some technical details of this project at cartogrammar.com

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