Analysis

How Valérie Plante and Denis Coderre are trying to win your vote

CBC News teamed up with two political scientist to analyze the words each candidate used in the English-language debate.

2 political scientists break down the word-choice of the 2 candidates during the English debate

Valérie Plante focused on "choice" during the debate. Denis Coderre focused on "accomplishment." (CBC)

It has, by now, become a commonplace of the campaign to describe Valérie Plante and Denis Coderre as polar opposites, as night-and-day choices for mayor.

But what is driving the perception that they're so different? A couple of obvious answers come to mind: gender, life experiences, world views, and so on.

Each candidate, though, reinforces these differences in the words they use.

To get a better sense of how word-choice contributes to our perception of the candidates, we took a closer look at what they said during Monday night's English-language debate.

CBC News provided two PhD students in political science — Vincent Hopkins of Simon Fraser University and Denver McNeney of McGill University — with a transcript of the debate. Using the transcript, they were able to perform a series of word-frequency analyses.

In one, they compared the tone of the words used by Coderre and Plante, or more specifically, their ratio of positive to negative words at given moments in the debate. 

"Both candidates were fairly equal in their overall sentiment, though Coderre had a brief period of positivity in the middle of the debate that wasn't matched by Plante," the researchers said in an email.

What is also noteworthy about the tone analysis is that while one is using positive words to discuss a topic, the other is using negative words. 

So for example, while Plante was making the case for the Pink line — her proposal to build a new Metro line from Montreal North to Lachine — she used phrases like "strong idea" and "good for economic development."

When it came time for Coderre to speak, he used more negative terms like "people are cynical."

That their tone diverged is, by itself, not surprising. It was a debate after all. But it is indicative of how little they agree on. Whatever the issue, if one used positive language, the other went negative. 

Oh, and that spike in positive language for Coderre in the middle of the debate? He was talking about Montreal's 375th anniversary celebrations, trying to give an up-beat spin on his major legacy project.

Semantic networks, say what?
Semantic network for Valérie Plante. (Hopkins and McNeney)

Hopkins and McNeney also teased out semantic networks of co-occuring words, a more advanced form of drawing word clouds. Semantic networks capture not just popular words but also the context in which those words are used. 

"Valérie Plante's network plot suggests an emphasis on 'choice' during the debate," the researchers said. "When she talks about choice, she also talks about neighbourhoods, safety and opportunity."

Coderre, as the incumbent, is running on his record. His semantic network during the debate revolved around "accomplishment."

Semantic network for Denis Coderre. (Hopkins and McNeney)

"When he talks about accomplishment, he also talks about Indigenous people, city programs and various quantities of interest (e.g. 'record tourist numbers')," said Hopkins and McNeney.

Another element that stands out: the word "tomorrow" appears around "choice" in Plante's semantic network, whereas Coderre tended to pair "accomplishment" with "today."

What they say when they talk about the economy

The word frequency analysis also illustrates how Plante and Coderre approach the same issue but from different perspectives. 

Take, for example, what we might refer to broadly as "The Economy."

"Both candidates talked about spending and the economy in the first 20 minutes," said Hopkins and McNeney.

"Ms. Plante gradually shifted focus to other topics (e.g. English-language service), while Mr. Coderre returned to the topic in the last 15 minutes of the debate."

This might reflect Coderre's belief that it's an issue where he has an advantage over his opponent. But also note that when speaking about The Economy he used words like "billions", "dollars" and "tax."

When Plante spoke about The Economy she used words like "money," businesses" and "work."

These word choices might reflect Projet Montréal's attempts to win over small-business owners by promising to foster commercial arteries. Coderre, on the other hand, likes to boast of jet-setting around the world to convince corporations into coming to Montreal. 

A caveat is in order. While both Coderre and Plante speak English with ease, it is their second-language and a live debate, where the stakes are high, is likely to only further tax their fluency. Their sentence construction and word choice don't always reflect those of a native speaker. 

But in focusing on word patterns, as opposed to specific utterances, this kind of analysis offers a general sense of how the two contenders are trying to win over voters.

During an election campaign, voters risk being easily lured by the siren song of politicians. A better understanding of the mechanics of political rhetoric, hopefully, empowers us to make more informed decisions come election day.  


Make a date with CBC for election night this Sunday, Nov. 5:

Online: Get breaking news and live results at cbc.ca/montreal after polls close at 8 p.m.

On Facebook: Join host Debra Arbec for a 90-minute Facebook Live starting at 10 p.m. with results, analysis and reports from across Quebec.

On TV: Watch our live results show at 11-11:30 p.m. on CBC Television.

On Radio: Listen to CBC Radio One starting at 8 p.m. for a province-wide show hosted by Mike Finnerty in Montreal and Susan Campbell in Quebec City.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit

Journalist

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He covers politics and social affairs.

With files from Roberto Rocha