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Presidential Candidates Speak at Middle-School Level

Ever get the feeling that presidential candidates talk down to voters? That may be because they're speaking at a 6th grade level.

Ever get the feeling that presidential candidates talk down to voters? That may be because the words and grammar they employ are at the level of students in middle school, finds a review (PDF) by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Language Technology Institute.

The study analyzed the speech patterns of current candidates, including Republicans Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who has since bowed out of the race, and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

To provide a historical glimpse of the rhetoric of elections in previous years, speeches from candidates from past presidential contests, including Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were also analyzed.

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To determine a candidates' score, the researchers relied on a readability model known as REAP. This model examines how often words and grammatical phrases are used within a set of speeches and compares them to language used in texts that education experts determine appropriate for a particular grade level. The chart below illustrates the results of the review:

Elliot Schumacher/Carnegie Mellon University

Most candidates in the 2016 election engage voters with language at a 6th to 8th grade lower. Vocabulary scores ranged from the 7th grade to 10th grade level. Looking at grammar, this year's candidates hovered around the 6th to 7th grade level.

Trump, currently the front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination, spoke at the least advanced level, according to the study's results. Trump and Clinton also showed the greatest variation in the level of language used in their campaign appearances, suggesting that they tailor their speeches to different constituencies, the researchers explain.

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Turning to historical candidates, Lincoln sets the high-water mark, with grammar usage around the 11th grade level. Bush, widely known for his "Bushisms," a combination of verbal slip-ups that include unconventional phrasing, unusual pronunciations and occasional malapropisms, scored the lowest at around a 5th grade level.

In terms of vocabulary, Reagan leads the pack, scoring around the 11th grade level. Here, Bush makes up ground, employing language around the 10th grade level, similar to that of his successor, Obama.

In fairness to all of the candidates, REAP is meant to parse written text, though the study used campaign speeches. "When we speak, we usually use less structured language with shorter sentences," said study co-author Maxine Eskenazi.

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Now that the presidential primary races are tightening, some may be surprised that the current republican primary leader is a former reality television star (as well as a billionaire businessman). But if history shows us anything, it's that presidential candidates can come in many stripes and from many walks of life. The United States is, after all, a democracy. Anyone can run for president -- contingent on a few rules -- and that's resulted in some strange campaigns over the years. Steering clear of the jokesters, publicity seekers and wacky morning DJs who mount stunt campaigns, we take a look at five odd presidential candidates from U.S. history.

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In the history of U.S. presidential elections, hundreds of religious leaders have declared themselves as candidates, but very few have managed serious traction as legitimate contenders. Still, the All-Time Dogged Persistence Award goes to Homer A. Tomlinson, a New York City preacher who ran for the presidency in five straight elections, from 1952 until his death in 1968. Tomlinson was a former advertising professional, but his campaigns were more than extended publicity stunts. He founded his own political organization -- titled with admirable frankness as the Theocratic Party -- and issued serious platform statements. Well, serious to him, anyway: He wanted to replace taxation with tithing and advocated for a new cabinet post: Secretary of Righteousness. Tomlinson also had a pretty strong Plan B: When it became clear that he would not secure the presidency, Tomlinson declared himself King of the World and staged coronation ceremonies in 101 different countries, where he appeared with a gold-plated crown, an inflatable globe and a folding chair as his throne. It's important to travel light with these things.

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In 1872, entrepreneur and suffragette Victoria Woodhull became what many historians consider the first legitimate female candidate for the presidency. Running on a platform of women's rights and pro-labor issues, Woodhull secured the nomination of the Equal Rights Party, along with her running mate -- the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Woodhull was a remarkable woman in many respects. Active in the fashionable spiritualist movement of the day, she also ran a Wall Street brokerage house and published a newspaper with original investigative reporting. In the paper, she advocated quite articulately for social policies that were decades ahead of their time, including sex education, vegetarianism and legalized prostitution. Woodhull also supported "free love" principles, which in that era meant the right to marry and divorce without government involvement or societal stigma: "Yes, I am a Free Lover," Woodhull wrote. "I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere." Power, sister.

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As leader of the Communist Party USA through the 1930s and 1940s, Earl Browder was for a time the most public face of the communist movement in America. Born in Kansas, Browder was active in U.S. labor movements as a teenager and was jailed for resisting the draft during World War I. Browder was the official Communist Party candidate in 1936 and 1940. He's just one of many presidential candidates nominated by various U.S. communist groups in the 20th century, but Browder's position as a high-profile public figure had several intriguing aspects. It was an open secret that Browder worked directly with espionage agencies in Moscow, and several members of his family were known intelligence operatives for the Soviets. He was, in effect, a not-so-secret agent running for president. Browder also faced some practical impediments to assuming the presidency. At the time of his nomination in 1940, he was appealing a conviction for passport forgery, which carried a four-year stint in federal prison. That would have made for a tricky first term in office.

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A prominent name in U.S. politics in the early 19th century, Hugh Lawson White was a former Tennessee state supreme court justice and eventual U.S. senator. In an era of stern gentlemen, he was a particularly austere personality with hardcore constructionist views on judicial interpretation and states' rights. In the 1836 election, the emerging Whig party decided to try something a little different. Rather than back a single candidate, the party put forth multiple candidates, each of whom was to run a regional campaign, banking on their respective local popularity. White was one of four Whig candidates, along with William Henry Harrison, Willie Mangum and Daniel Webster. The idea was to win a majority in the Electoral College, then decide on the presidential ticket later. The Whig strategy didn't work, and it's maybe just as well. Had White been installed in the Oval Office, America would surely have had its most anal-retentive president ever. When he was serving in the Senate, White considered it his duty to attend every single Senate speech and meeting, and he was known to arrive at the Capitol building in the wee hours of the morning and stay late into the night. Punctuality was something of a passion for White, and his pocket watch is on display in a Tennessee museum.

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The candidate for whom the term "wingnut" was apparently invented, California congressman John G. Schmitz was the American Independent Party candidate for president in 1972. Infamous for his outrageous political rhetoric, Schmitz not only mounted a campaign to challenge incumbent Richard Nixon -- from the right -- he was eventually expelled from the John Birch Society for "extremism." Schmitz' third-party run was doomed from the start, but it was no joke. He got almost 10 percent of the vote in Idaho and finished ahead of Democratic nominee George McGovern in some counties. But Schmitz' crazybones quotes to the media have endured as his historical claim to fame. Of Nixon's trip to China, he famously said: "I have no objection to President Nixon going to China. I just object to his coming back." Schmitz also endorsed the return of segregated schools, called the Watts riots "a communist operation" and in the 1980s suggested that "

good military coup might be the best we could hope for if President Reagan's policies are not successful." Odd footnote: Schmitz' daughter is

Mary Kay Letourneau


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