Political Operation: How journalists harvest the candidates’ body parts and sell them on the pundit market

Chris Wilson

Read literally, the hype around the vice presidential debate sounded like a contest between a blob of gray matter and a giant intestine: Paul Ryan's brain versus Joe Biden's gut.

Biden, wrote Politico's Jonathan Martin, campaigns "the old-fashioned way—from the gut and without much script." National Journal's Sophie Quinton concurred: "Biden may make clumsy remarks, but he's a seasoned debater, with a gut connection to middle-class voters."

Ryan, by contrast, is "a wonk at heart—he's the brains of this particular Congress," a Democratic political operative told NPR. "It will be the hard head against the open heart," a Central Pennsylvania newspaper columnist added.

Yet Ryan could be heard chipping away at the vice president's turf, or at least marshaling his defenses against the stigma of seeming too professorial. "I'm not really a line guy. I'm more of a gut guy," Ryan said on a "Fox News Sunday" appearance. "I believe in what I believe. I do what I do." 

Tracking which organs show up around which politicians presents a surprisingly clear picture of the general consensus about their personalities and vulnerabilities. You might say it allows us to keep our finger in the wind and our ears to the ground as we keep an eye on the political commentary.

President Barack Obama's troubles since last week's debate, for example, are neatly organized around the heel. Before the vice presidential debate, Ryan referred to the president's record as Biden's "Achilles heel," and the Washington Post noted recently that, "After a score of counterterrorist successes, the Obama administration has been knocked back on its heels since the attacks' 11th anniversary, when assailants stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya."

Mitt Romney's weakness is in his fingers. "For weeks, Republican Party elders fretted that the presidential race was slipping through Mitt Romney's fingers," the Associated Press wrote. And the Atlantic suggested that Romney has "suffered mightily from his reputation as a flip-flopper, a man with his finger in the political wind who changed his position depending on what he was running for."

Political commentary harvests the human body for every operative part, and once you start looking for body parts, you find them everywhere, like a game of Operation. So that's exactly how we organized them.

To create a rhetorical body-snatching index, I used a computer script (I named it "TSA") to match the text from about 1,000 news articles relating to the election against a list of body parts. I filtered out literal references to body parts—mentions of people shaking hands and making eye contact. And showing off their biceps. 

Artwork by the author. Follow Chris Wilson on Twitter at @chriswilsondc or email him at cewilson@yahoo-inc.com.