Guesstimating Election 2012

Lawrence Weinstein’s forthcoming book, Guesstimation 2.0: Solving Today’s Problems on the Back of a Napkin, shows how to estimate everything from how closely you can orbit a neutron star without being pulled apart by gravity, to the fuel used to transport your food from the farm to the store, to the total length of all toilet paper used in the United States — handy tips for anyone prepping for a job interview in technology or finance, or trying to astound their kids. Today he offers an election-themed problem, with several more installments to come over the course of the summer. Read on to see how to estimate an answer to the burning question How many words will be spoken in public by all the presidential candidates during election season. You know you’re curious…



Question: How many words will be spoken in public by all of the presidential candidates during the election season?


Answer: In order to estimate this, we need to estimate the length of the election season, the number of candidates speaking, and the number of words that speak in public each day.  While it feels like the election season lasts forever, it is really only about a year.  Similarly, despite the fact that each of the primary debates appeared to have 17.3 candidates on stage, the average number of candidates during the primary season was only about five or six and there will be only two candidates during the general election.

Therefore we will estimate that there are five candidates for the 200-day primary season and two candidates for the 200-day general election season for a total of 103 candidate-days.

Now we need to estimate the number of words spoken in public per candidate per day.  Let’s break this down further into the hours spent speaking and the number of words per hour.  We can estimate the speaking time in two ways.  First we can bound a candidate’s public speaking time at more than one and less than ten hours per day.  Taking the geometric mean, we estimate that each candidate spends three hours per day addressing the public.   Alternatively, we know that candidates divide their waking time between fund raising, traveling, organizing, and speaking publically.  Assuming that they sleep 8 hours and divide the remaining time equally, this gives four hours per day for public speaking.  Some candidates might even spend some of their time listening.  If so, they will spend three hours per day in public speaking.

Speaking speed can be estimated a few ways.  We can listen to a speech and measure it, we can take our reading speed and divide by a factor of several, we can look at the transcript of speech, or we can bound it.  Let’s do the last method.  People speak more than 10 words per minute and less than 103.  Taking the geometric mean, we get 102 words per minute.  This makes sense because it is several times slower than typical reading speeds and it is faster than all but the fastest typing speeds.

Now the number of words uttered in public during the campaign can be calculated as

N = (10^3 candidate-day)(3 hr/day)(60 min/hr)(10^2 words/min)
= 2 x 10^7 words

That is 20 million words or enough to fill several hundred books.


Copyright 2012, Lawrence Weinstein.


Lawrence Weinstein is University Professor of Physics at Old Dominion University. He is the coauthor of Guesstimation: Solving the World’s Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin (Princeton).