Spotlight Exclusives

Do Words Matter? Tracking Poverty Talk in the First Presidential Debate

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After two weeks of sustained discussion about poverty following Governor Romney۪s “47 percent” remarks, some news organizations have pointed out that the topic was largely absent from last week۪s presidential debate.

While the debate mainly focused on the economy and putting Americans back to work, most of the back-and-forth between the candidates was devoted to the middle class. Moderator Jim Lehrer asked no questions about the problems facing low-income Americans and despite the recent efforts of numerous organizations through the #TalkPoverty hashtag on Twitter, the issue commanded little attention.

To gauge how much of the debate actually focused on poverty-related issues, Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity decided to track how often the following key words were used by either candidate:  poverty, low-income, welfare, poor, opportunity, social mobility, Medicaid and food stamps.  (It is important to note that this is merely a word count not an analysis of either candidate۪s policy proposals.) In total, 10 percent of the candidates۪ statements focused on poverty and opportunity. President Obama spent a little over four and a half percent of his response time talking about poverty-related issues, while Governor Romney came in at five and a half percent.

Medicaid was the only poverty-related topic addressed by both candidates. Sixty-eight percent of the Medicaid-related responses were given by President Obama, while the remaining 32 percent were delivered by Governor Romney.

Governor Romney۪s most substantial statements about poverty discussed his plan to make Medicaid a state-controlled program, stating, “I would like to take the Medicaid dollars that go to states and say to a state, you۪re going to get what you got last year, plus inflation, plus 1 percent, and then you’re going to manage your care for your poor in the way you think best.”

President Obama disagreed, stating that “when you talk about shifting Medicaid to states, we۪re talking about potentially a 30 a 30 percent cut in Medicaid over time. Now, you know, that may not seem like a big deal when it just is, you know, numbers on a sheet of paper, but if we۪re talking about a family who۪s got an autistic kid and is depending on that Medicaid, that۪s a big problem.”

Governor Romney was the only candidate to use the words “poor,” “low-income,” and “food stamps.” The word “poverty” was used once throughout the entire debate, by Governor Romney. The only candidate to discuss “opportunity” was President Obama.

Stay tuned as Spotlight continues to track poverty as the presidential debates progress.

This study is based on the first presidential debate, which was held in Denver on October 3, 2012. Two categories were considered for analysis: the questions asked of candidates and the responses given by candidates. Each mention of poverty-related subjects (identified through the keywords mentioned above) was counted and compared to the total number of questions or the total number of words in responses. Poverty-related response word counts included the keyword and any surrounding content that was deemed relevant.

Posted by Allyse

Here at Out of the Spotlight, we offer a behind-the-scenes look at the latest news and information essential to anyone working to fight poverty. From key political appointees to clashes over policy, we cover the news that doesn’t always make the evening news. Check out Out of the Spotlight for our take on the twists and turns of the latest political developments and their impact on poverty reduction. Topics and ideas are welcome! Just contact or

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