Does complex or simple rhetoric win elections? An integrative complexity analysis of U.S. presidential campaigns

Lucian Gideon Conway, Laura Janelle Gornick, Chelsea Burfeind, Paul Mandella, Andrea Kuenzli, Shannon C. Houck, Deven Theresa Fullerton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


Research suggests that the integrative complexity of political rhetoric tends to drop during election season, but little research to date directly addresses if this drop in complexity serves to increase or decrease electoral success. The two present studies help fill this gap. Study 1 demonstrates that, during the Democratic Party primary debates in 2003-2004, the eventual winners of the party nomination showed a steeper drop in integrative complexity as the election season progressed than nonwinning candidates. Study 2 presents laboratory evidence from the most recent presidential campaign demonstrating that, while the complexity of Obama's rhetoric had little impact on college students' subsequent intentions to vote for him, the complexity of McCain's rhetoric was significantly positively correlated with their likelihood of voting for him. Taken together, this research is inconsistent with an unqualified simple is effective view of the complexity-success relationship. Rather, it is more consistent with a compensatory view: Effective use of complexity (or simplicity) may compensate for perceived weaknesses. Thus, appropriately timed shifts in complexity levels, and/or violations of negative expectations relevant to complexity, may be an effective means of winning elections. Surprisingly, mere simplicity as such seems largely ineffective.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)599-618
Number of pages20
JournalPolitical Psychology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Attitudes
  • Complexity
  • Elections
  • Rhetoric

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


Dive into the research topics of 'Does complex or simple rhetoric win elections? An integrative complexity analysis of U.S. presidential campaigns'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this