Earlier this year, governors across the nation delivered their state of the state addresses. Each state has its own unique set of victories to recognize and difficulties to overcome; but, according to our analysis, with the exception of Hawaii—which appears to be an outlier in several ways—the tone of the Western governors was fairly uniform and safe, hovering around the national average tone for this group of 2014 state policy-setting speeches. Western governors may take a slightly more active tone, but sound less realistic than our nationwide sample.

Some governors gave brief and vague speeches; others spoke at length on several public policy issues, laying out specific agendas for their state legislatures to act on. Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter was somewhere in the middle, delivering a speech that focused in depth on education, but did not attend to other policy matters in great detail.

This variation in what governors talked about—and how they talked—prompted us to investigate the matter more systematically. Using the text of several of the state of the state addresses delivered this spring in Western states, we analyzed the ways in which governors talk to their constituents. Doing so, we hoped, would yield insight into not only how governors talk, but if any specific factors drive the differences in their rhetorical style.

To do this, we used a computer program called DICTION. DICTION is a java-based application that uses nearly three dozen separate word lists (with more than 10,000 words total) to identify patterns in the tone of a text. It has been used to analyze everything from literature to the language accompanying initial public offerings, but it was originally developed by University of Texas scholar Roderick Hart to study political rhetoric. Hart discusses the program and its uses in his recent book, Political Tone: How Leaders Talk & Why.

To be more specific, DICTION utilizes five master variables (activity, optimism, certainty, realism and commonality) to assess a text. The descriptions that follow come from Political Tone:

  • Activity “features movement, change, the implementation of ideas and the avoidance of inertia and helps distinguish reflective from non-reflective texts.”
  • Optimism includes “language endorsing some person, group, concept, or event or highlighting their positive entailments.”
  • Certainty “indicates resoluteness, inflexibility and completeness and a tendency to speak ex cathedra [with the full authority of office].”
  • Realism covers “tangible, immediate, recognizable matters that affect people’s everyday lives.”
  • Commonality language highlights “the agreed-upon values of a group” and rejects “idiosyncratic modes of engagement.”

By understanding the ways in which different Western governors score on these measures, we can get a good idea of their relationships with constituents and, hopefully, more information on what kinds of factors drive those relationships. Below, we discuss the results of our analysis of the these state of the state addresses — as well as the national average — with respect to each of those measures.

political tone


Western states vs. U.S. average for five measures of political tone in 2014 state of the state speeches. Data compiled by Amanda Stickelman and Justin Vaughn, analyzed with DICTION and visualized by Nathaniel Hoffman.

Activity

Activity gives us an idea about the energy underlying the words in a governor’s speech. The national average for activity was 44.89. Hawaii was far below the average, at 34.33, and considerably lower than the next lowest score. Wyoming and Utah were both near the national average with scores of 44.19 and 44.76, respectively. Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico and Washington all scored above average in the high 40s, while Alaska and California scored the highest at 50.04 and 52.06, respectively. There is no obvious reason why Hawaii’s score was so low for this particular variable. It is possible that the speech was primarily focused on a different aspect of state affairs, which is likely when comparing this score with the commonality score.

Optimism

Optimism scores were in general higher than activity scores, with the national average coming in at 53.74. This makes sense—state of the state addresses cover some of what’s been done, but focus on the upcoming possibilities. They speak hopefully of things to come, while briefly covering what has already been done. Colorado, California, Wyoming and Hawaii all scored below the national average. A possible explanation for these scores is that first-term governors going into an election year delivered all of these speeches. They may be less optimistic because they lack the experience of multiple-term governors and are up for re-election for the first time in the coming months. Washington, New Mexico and Idaho scores were about average, with Alaska slightly exceeding average at 55.32. Arizona and Utah both received high scores at 58.88 and 57.21, respectively.

Certainty

The national average certainty score is 44.89, the same score activity received. Wyoming received the lowest score of the states, with 38.13, followed by Idaho, with a score of 42.86. Arizona, California, Hawaii and Washington all received scores near the average, while Alaska, New Mexico and Utah received scores in the high 40s. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D) achieved a score of 50.82 with his speech. Wyoming’s governor, Matt Mead (R), is ending his first term this year and facing re-election in the coming months; this could explain why his certainty score was so low. Wyoming is a heavily Republican state and Cindy Hill, a favorite amongst Tea Party voters, announced her intentions to run for governor. Still, Mead has the highest approval rating among incumbent governors seeking re-election, with an approval rating of 66. Frankly, there is some uncertainty over the drivers of this certainty score.

Realism

The average score for realism was 50.31. Hawaii received the lowest score of the Western states, at 42.24, but Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming were all below the national average with scores in the high 40s. Alaska, New Mexico and Washington were slightly above average, but still received scores in the low 50s. We suspect that Hawaii’s low realism score is related to its activity score. Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie (D) skewed from addressing practical solutions or state affairs in his speech (evident by the low activity score), instead focusing on the community and idealistic aspects of Hawaii (which we see in the high commonality score). Given those factors, it makes sense that his speech would be less realistic than others.

Commonality

The average nationwide score for commonality was 51.73. Arizona, California, Utah and Wyoming all received below average scores, in the low 40s. Alaska and Colorado were only slightly below, with scores of 50.38 and 50.83, respectively. Idaho, New Mexico and Washington all scored in the 52-55 range and Hawaii received an extremely high score of 72.41. Western states, in general, may receive lower scores than others because of their size. Geographically speaking, Western states tend to be among the largest states. Surprisingly, Utah scored low, though the state’s demographic is fairly homogeneous. California is home to a diverse population, so it makes sense it received a low commonality score. Hawaii’s high score was expected: it is an island state that has a distinct but prevalent heritage.

What can we learn?

The results described above lead to as many new questions as they answer. We can, however, draw some interesting conclusions. First, regarding Western politics, we can see some areas where Western governors are different from their peers across the nation. For example, our group of Western governors were more active than their peers, while their rhetoric was less characterized by realism. With the West increasingly serving as a testing ground for new ideas and approaches to solving policy problems, these findings are not difficult to believe.

Readers of The Blue Review might be particularly interested in the implications of this study for Idaho’s governor, C.L. “Butch” Otter (R). As we mentioned earlier, Otter’s state of the state address focused on education, neglecting some other hot topics.

With respect to the DICTION scores, Otter’s were consistently near the national average, which reflects the nature of his speech: unremarkable and safe. This makes sense, as Otter was then facing a potentially difficult primary challenge from State Senator Russ Fulcher—one that seemingly affected much of his decision-making throughout the subsequent legislative session. Moreover, Idaho’s GOP is torn, as evident by the shutting-down of its convention earlier this year. Otter’s uncontroversial address was likely designed not to isolate or upset any important faction of the Republican Party that he needed to win over or, at least, avoid antagonizing. Strategically, his rather ordinary speech was perhaps the best approach, given the current political climate within the state of Idaho approaching the election later this year.

What we still don’t know?

This study considered only Western states in 2014. The small sample size makes accurate interpretation of the data difficult. Gubernatorial rhetoric certainly varies, but the small scope leaves many things unaccounted for. This study lacks multiple years for comparison—for example, we cannot look at how a particular governor usually speaks. Perhaps Neil Abercrombie is always low for activity and realism compared to other governors, or maybe he is normally much higher. We cannot know looking at this study alone. And while we account for the national average, we do not have other states’ individual scores for comparison. Our future work will account for these missing variables; but, for now, we should read the previously mentioned results cautiously.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • Even with the requisite disclaimers, there’s a temptation to read too much into this interesting meta-analysis. It would be stronger with report of the measurements’ variation. Your infographic narrowed the vertical axis (30 to 70 units of the sketchily defined “political tone”) to promote differences, but beyond Hawai`i’s Governor standing out for “Community” (and “against” “Activity”), the sameness is more striking than the differences. Does the program do enough to distill out clichés and boilerplate before weighing?

    Hawai`i is certainly “an outlier in several ways,” geographically and historically. Giving in to the temptation to read too much into this, I imagine that its citizens are in a better position to recognize Red Green’s truth that “we’re all in this together,” inhabitants of a lonely island teeming with beneficent life, dependent on potentially fragile ecosystems and well-behaved neighbors.