Dumb and Dumber

Most politicians dumb down their speeches. Not Susana

Graphics by Peter St. Cyr.

Last week, Gov. Susana Martinez kicked off the 2013 legislative session with her third "State of the State" speech. Many of the themes were so familiar—education, jobs, taxes, etc.—that SFR decided to compare them to her 2012 speech via word cloud, a graphic that sizes words according to how often they appear.

Above, we compare Martinez' most recent State of the State address (on right) with her 2012 speech (left). In both, she uses the words "help," "child" and "jobs" frequently. (Jobs for kids?) The speeches diverge on words like "read," which shows up often in 2012, but not in 2013, which favored "economy" instead.

We also analyzed another aspect of Martinez' speeches: the Flesch-Kincaid grade level—a rough approximation of the grade a student must have completed in order to easily understand what's being said. Martinez' 2012 speech scored an 8.3; this year, it went up to 8.8—almost ninth-grade level.

That's unusual. SFR analyzed State of the Union speeches since the 1700s and found that most presidents gradually dumb down their speeches as they spend more time in office. Bill Clinton, for instance, started 1993 with an 11th-grade-level speech, but by 2000 logged a 9.6. We've also been getting dumber over time: George Washington started his term at a 22.3 grade level—roughly equivalent to 10 years of college—and declined to 18.3; Barack Obama started at a 10th grade level and declined to 8.6 in 2012. (To be fair, reading old speeches is probably harder now than it was back then.)

Martinez, then, has bucked the dumbing-down trend—but she also started lower than any president ever has, with two exceptions: George HW Bush, who went from an 8.4 to a 7.4 (we blame Dan Quayle), and George W Bush, who started at an 8.5—the same as Martinez in 2011—but worked up to 9.9 by 2008. Just imagine the Susana of 2018!

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