Deconstructing Carson’s nose dive

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According to the December 2015 CNN/ORC Poll, Ben Carson has dropped a hefty eight points since the mid-October poll, and there are plenty of theories out there for the downturn in his polling numbers. One theory is that the drop is due to questions about the accuracy of his biography (Politico). Others have suggested that the renewed energy in Ted Cruz’s campaign and his recent endorsement by Iowa Rep. Steve King likely cut into Carson’s numbers (CNN). And even Carson himself has an explanation for the drop—public perceptions that he has little to no foreign policy experience (ABC News).

We took a different approach to investigate Carson’s decline. We used our expertise in communication analysis to evaluate Carson’s public discourse, using our proprietary language analytics platform to track how Carson’s communication changed following the second GOP debate on September 16, 2015.

Our analysis revealed that as Carson’s polling numbers dove in the last six weeks, so did his credible language, while his negativity has increased.

Losing credibility by stepping away from his plans

In the two months between the second and fourth GOP debate, Carson’s credible language has decreased a striking 71.5%—not a good sign for his credibility. Research suggests that audiences perceive speakers as more credible when they take control of the message and share details about their future activities and processes. “I” language and detailed descriptions show audiences that a speaker is in control.

For example, when moderator Jake Tapper stated “Dr. Carson wants to raise the Federal Minimum wage” in the second debate, Carson demonstrated his credibility by taking ownership and delineating steps:

“Well, first of all, let me say what I actually said about raising the minimum wage. I was asked should it be raised, I said, probably, or possibly. But, what I added, which I think is the most important thing, so, I said we need to get both sides of this issue to sit down, and talk about it. Negotiate a reasonable minimum wage, and index that so that we never have to have this conversation again in the history of America.”

As Figure 1 shows, Carson’s use of language that indicates speaker credibility declined after the second debate—a decline reflected in his shift in focus away from his own plans and achievements in the next debates. We can see clearly that defensive switch in attention away from his individual accomplishments and toward the media in this statement in the fourth GOP debate:

“The fact of the matter is, you know, what—we should vet all candidates. I have no problem with being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about and then putting that out there as truth. And I don’t even mind that so much, if they do it about—with everybody, like people on the other side. But, you know, when I look at somebody like Hillary Clinton, who sits there and tells her daughter and a government official that no, this was a terrorist attack, and then tells everybody else that it was a video.”

Figure 1. Ben Carson’s credibility language


This theme of talking less about his own plans and more about the media continued near the end of his speaking engagement in Mobile, Alabama on November 19, 2015:

“I mean this is the kind of thing that they do. Fortunately, it only works on gullible people, but the problem is, there are a lot of gullible people. And, you know, it is kind of a sad thing that we’ve reached a point in our society where we have such dishonesty in our media.”

It makes sense that Carson needed to defend himself against attacks on his personal story, and for some candidates, turning the media into an enemy can prove useful. Still, his choice to talk less about his plans for the presidency, while neglecting to cite more evidence for his potential effectiveness in that office, may have hurt him in the polls.

Hurting trustworthiness by increasing negativity

Our analysis over the last few months also reveals that as Carson began neglecting his personal credibility, he started using more negativity. Carson used 70.4% more negative language in the third GOP debate than he did in the second. Then in the fourth debate, his negativity increased again. Since there is often some negativity in political debates, as candidates are attempting to differentiate themselves from their opponents, it is hardly surprising that Carson had a rating of 48.9% negative language in the second debate. In fact, his negative language was less than that of GOP front-runner Donald Trump (66.5%). Figure 2 shows how Carson’s use of negative language increased.

Figure 2. Ben Carson’s negative language


In the fourth GOP debate, Carson’s use of negativity jumped to 91.5% as he talked about jihadists trying “to destroy us and to destroy our way of life,” problems “hurting the poor,” and that “two veterans have taken their lives of out despair.” The use of negative words continued in his ABC News interview on November 29, 2015:

“…any hate crime is a horrible thing. No matter from where it comes and should be condemned very strongly… Unfortunately, there’s a lot of extremism coming from all of the areas. One of the biggest areas I think that’s threatening to tear our country apart. We get into our separate corners and we hate each other, we want to destroy those who we disagree. That comes from both sides. There’s no saint here in this equation.”

Although Carson was speaking about inherently harmful and undesirable circumstances, he may have inadvertently undercut his own credibility, as research suggests that deceptive communicators often use more negative language than truthful communicators. In this case, the negativity could have made voters worry about his trustworthiness. Even when candidates are asked about negatively charged events, it might be in their best interest to find ways to use more positive and uplifting language.

Looking ahead

We can’t say whether Carson’s word choice had a direct effect on his poll numbers. But our analysis and research would suggest that it didn’t help. Whether Carson continues to fall in the polls or rebounds, we will keep tracking his communication, as well as that of other leading candidates in the 2016 race to the White House.

To learn more about how we can help your team use analytics to evaluate and strengthen your communications, contact us at