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NERDSCREEN: The Importance of the Campaign Announcement Speech

A presidential announcement speech is a declaration of a campaign’s principles and what a candidate talks about says a lot about the president they aspire to be.

A presidential announcement speech is more than a simple statement of intent; it is a declaration of a campaign’s principles and of how it views the country. It was where Barack Obama talked about the need for a new generation of leadership and where George W. Bush discussed “prosperity with a purpose.” Those themes would go on to drive their runs for the White House.

The NBC News Political Unit and Meet the Press have spent this past week going through the 2016 batch of announcements to date, a few things jump out of this election’s set.

For Democrats, it’s still the economy:

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley both devoted more than one third of their announcement speeches to the economy. Economic topics made up 38% of Mr. O’Malley’s sentences and almost half (46%) of the sentences in Mr. Sanders’ announcement. It was also 17% of former Sec. Hillary Clinton's official kick-off speech, the second largest portion of her speech after lines about leadership.

NBC News
NBC News

No Republican got above 24% on the economy.

Those numbers are representative of two important points setting the stage for the 2016 campaign.

First, the Democrats likely feel they have a winner issue in the economy. Since President Barack Obama took office the stock market is up, the unemployment rate is down. The recovery has picked up steam since 2012 in the eyes of Americans, as we noted recently.

Second, Democratic voters are much more focused on the topic than Republicans, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Three in five Democrats, 60%, say jobs and the economy are the first or second most important issue to them. Only 43% of Republicans put jobs and the economy in their top two issues.

The top issue for Republican voters? National security and terrorism.

Democratic candidate Lincoln Chaffee, the former Rhode Island governor and senator, is the outlier here. His speech looked like that of a single-issue candidate – 68% of it was devoted to foreign affairs.

For Republicans, it’s about a personal story and foreign affairs:

In every Republican announcement, other than that of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, 14% or more the sentences were about personal biography. In some cases it was much more.

Biography was the focus on 33% of the sentences in former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s announcement. It was the focus on 31% of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s speech. And it was 30% of the speech for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

NBC News
NBC News

For the Democrats, biography made up only 3% of Mr. Chaffee’s speech, 5% of Mr. O’Malley’s and 11% of Mr. Sanders announcement.

The focus on biography is especially striking when you consider that most of the Republicans who have formally announced so far (such as Senators Santorum, Cruz and Rubio) are fairly well known nationally, especially compared to the Democrats.

But the numbers also suggest that in a very crowded Republican field with many candidates holding fairly similar positions, the would-be nominees are looking for a way to stand out and connect with voters.

The Republicans also generally spent more time on foreign affairs in their announcements than the Democrats, but some of that had to do with how little Democrats talked about foreign affairs. None of the sentences in the announcements for Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Sanders concerned foreign policy.

Mr. Graham and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul spent the most time on foreign affairs – 41% and 20% respectively.

Still To Report:

None of these numbers take into account some of 2016’s biggest names who have yet to make their formal announcements like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on the Republican side. And those candidates’ speeches may look quite different.

For instance, Mr. Bush has made economic opportunity a big part of his campaigning with his Right to Rise Super PAC.

The neatness of the partisan breakdown in the announcement speeches so far has been remarkable. In fact, the latest NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll numbers combined with these breakdown suggest that the 2016 campaign is starting off on different tracks and around different topics – one for Democrats and one for Republicans.

Take a look at all of the breakdowns for the thirteen candidates who have made official announcement speeches here.