Zach Steiner
Sep 5, 2008

Presidential Word Counts

It's conference submission season around our department, so I am very sensitive to word counts. I noticed during the primary that Obama's website featured lengthy policy documents in PDF format, whereas McCain and Clinton had much skimpier policy positions on their respective sites. The goal of this study was to see if there were actual differences in the quantity of information provided by the two major party candidates for president.


I selected seven issues that are commonly discussed and/or I (and many Americans during this election) feel are important in this election. I did a word count the two campaigns provide on their websites ( and about these issues: Economy, Education, Energy, Foreign Policy, Health Care, Iraq, and Technology. I computed the total number of words devoted to these issues, as well as a mean word count across the 7 issues. For the Obama site, I counted only the PDF policy paper and not the site, so the actual word count is quite a bit higher. The content is redundant from the main policy paper, so it's unfair to include the summary page in the word count. Lastly, I counted the total number of issues discussed on each campaign site.



McCain: 5,669 Obama: 6,767


McCain: 1,945 Obama: 8,983


McCain: 1,997 Obama: 4,639

Foreign Policy:

McCain: 3,025 (McCain calls Foreign Policy "National Security.") Obama: 10,922

Health Care:

McCain: 1,388 Obama: 6,839


McCain: 1,433 Obama: 1,395


McCain: 4,518 Obama: 5,320

Sum / Mean:

McCain: 19,975 / 2,854 Obama: 44,865 / 6,409 The difference between these means is statistically significant, t(12) = -2.69, p = .02.

Total Issues Addressed: McCain: 18 (12 of which are accessible from the main menu) Obama: 30 (24 of which are accessible from the main menu)


McCain is red and Obama is blue.


From these results, the McCain has roughly half the content as the Obama campagin on comparable issues and 12 fewer issues touched upon. Though quantity does not equal quality and this brief descriptive study doesn't purport to measure quality or thoroughness of position, it is more far more likely to throughly cover an issue with more words than fewer. The McCain site does not provide dedicated policy papers for any issue beside the economy; the policy positions are offered in a few sentences per heading on the issue page. The Obama site offers dedicated policy papers in PDF format for most issues, including "Additional Issues" such as the arts (919 words). These six additional issues are in addition to the 24 that are accessible from the main site menu. Furthermore, the Obama policy papers often feature references, with which the McCain campaign's sole policy paper (The Economic Plan) does not bother. It definitely appears from this narrow study that the Obama campaign is putting it's money where it's mouth is in respect to making this a campaign about the issues. I only wish McCain's campaign would step up and honestly debate Obama on the issues or at the very least let the American public know where he stands on a broader swathe of issues.

(This post is 545 words. It would be under the limit for a symposium at SIOP, but the statistics are probably skimpy.)

UPDATE: I created an interactive data visualization for the 2016 election. It includes the data from this post as a comparison to the current candidates.

©2021 Zach Steiner