'Word clouds' show what voters think of presidential candidates

Researchers with the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University got some interesting answers when they asked Virginia voters to share the first word that came to mind about several 2016 presidential hopefuls.

Voters were asked about Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, John Kasich and Jeb Bush. Most of the people surveyed were white college graduates and identified with a Christian faith.

The resulting word associations ranged from high praise, to grim condemnation, with intermixed insults, job titles and political labels.

Researchers then used a software called "Wordle" to generate "word cloud" visualizations based on how many times single words were repeated by different voters. The more often voters used a particular word, the larger is appears in the candidate's cloud.

Senators Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders had the fewest amount of words associated with their names, while candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton generated more prolific responses.

Researcher Rachel Bitecofer explained that phenomenon.

"My major takeaway from this part of our study is that the candidates that are better known almost universally seem to be saddled with higher negative word associations," she said.

The team acknowledged that their word clouds have limitations, but defended the clouds' usefulness as a tool for understanding how voters feel in no uncertain terms.

"We recognize that the visualizations generated by these lists have their limitations. Even Wordle's inventor, Jonathan Feinberg, calls his creation a toy. But in addition to the fun that this toy may bring to the process of testing and evaluating voter preferences, the word clouds that follow reveal strengths and vulnerabilities each candidate brings to the campaign for president," they wrote at the end of their final report. "Word association may not be a probing or carefully calibrated research tool, but there's not much nuance or ambiguity in words such as "liar," "crazy,""socialist," or "scary" - to sample just a few."