Measuring and Explaining Political Sophistication through Textual Complexity

Kenneth Benoit, Kevin Munger, Arthur Spirling

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Political scientists lack domain-specific measures for the purpose of measuring the sophistication of political communication. We systematically review the shortcomings of existing approaches, before developing a new and better method along with software tools to apply it. We use crowdsourcing to perform thousands of pairwise comparisons of text snippets and incorporate these results into a statistical model of sophistication. This includes previously excluded features such as parts of speech and a measure of word rarity derived from dynamic term frequencies in the Google Books data set. Our technique not only shows which features are appropriate to the political domain and how, but also provides a measure easily applied and rescaled to political texts in a way that facilitates probabilistic comparisons. We reanalyze the State of the Union corpus to demonstrate how conclusions differ when using our improved approach, including the ability to compare complexity as a function of covariates.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)491-508
    Number of pages18
    JournalAmerican Journal of Political Science
    Issue number2
    StatePublished - Apr 2019

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science
    • Political Science and International Relations


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