Seeking Power, Finding Friends, and Making the Grade: Drive Orientations of the Primary Frontrunners

November 16, 2015

by Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker

Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin

Last week both the Republicans and Democrats once again hit the debate stage. In this post, we discuss how the frontrunners in both parties compare in the ways they orient to power, achievement, and affiliation. Similar approaches were studied by David McClelland in the 1950s which resulted in his theory of human motivation which proposed three central needs that drive people’s lives:

  • Need for power — driven by prestige, control, status, and influence over others
  • Need for achievement — driven by succeeding, accomplishing goals and overcoming challenges
  • Need for affiliation — motivated by close relationships with others

Whereas McClelland viewed power, achievement, and affiliation as basic motives that could drive people to behave, we think of them more as orientations.  That is, people differ in the degree to which they pay attention to these dimensions in their everyday actions.  By understanding how political candidates are naturally orienting to these dimensions, we can discern what is important to them.

Consider power orientation.  Those who attend to power automatically assess others by how much status or influence they have.  In debates, for example, candidates high in power orientation will use words such as leader or follower, demand, weak, or powerful.  When they walk into a room, power-oriented people naturally pick out who has the most and the least power.  Interestingly, people with high power orientation could be people who themselves are powerful or weak.  Their own level of power can be independent of how closely they are monitoring others’ power.  David Winter, a student of David McClelland, studied power motivation of presidential speeches using a content analytic strategy.  He found Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin D. Roosevelt to be particularly high in power which he argued was related to their political effectiveness and aggression.

Achievement orientation works in a similar way.  People who are concerned with other people’s or their own achievement are constantly measuring success, failure, and ambition.  To get a sense of the degree to which candidates are paying attention to achievement issues, listen to how frequently they use words such as win, lose, excellence, and earn.  Very often, those high in achievement orientation measure themselves by the relative success of themselves compared to others.  Winter has found that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were quite high in achievement orientation.  Both were highly competitive in school and were known to be hard driving and ambitious from an early age.

People with a high affiliation orientation are scanning their environments for friends, close relationships, and trustworthy allies. Candidates who naturally orient to affiliation use words like help, friend, ally, family, and we.  Richard Nixon and George W. Bush were found by Winter to be high in affiliation orientation. Although friendship was important to both of them, not all were socially successful.  Nixon, for example, wanted to be close to others but had great difficulty succeeding.  He was introverted and, by most historical accounts, one of the most lonely presidents in recent time. Bush prized close friendships and used social compatibility as a central measure of other leaders’ character (his remarks about Putin, Tony Blair, and Dick Cheney are notable examples).

As noted in earlier blog posts, we analyzed the debate language of the top candidates using the computer text analysis program LIWC2015 (  The program calculates the percentage of words used by each candidate that reflected power, achievement, and affiliation. To compare the candidates on these dimensions, we have adjusted the scores across all the debates so that a score of 50 is average, a score greater than 60 is above average, and a score less than 40 is below average.

drive orientations

Comparing the Republican frontrunners: Trump, Carson, Rubio, Cruz, and Bush

Jeb! Bush stands out among all of the candidates in both parties as being the highest in achievement orientation. In this last debate and in the previous ones, Bush repeatedly mentioned his own successes — “we’ve had a great American success story” (referring to his time as governor of Florida) — as well as the failures of others — “We lose a fortune on trade.” (referring to policies of the current administration). Given that he is the third member of his immediate family to run for president, Bush is likely measuring his own political legacy with that of his father and brother.

Ben Carson scores in the average range on affiliation and achievement but somewhat below average on power. Being low on power orientation could reflect his being a surgeon — someone who has always had a great deal of professional power and prestige. He may feel that he has no need to check the levels of other people’s power because he is secure in his own powerful status.

Ted Cruz  uses language that indicates that he is far more oriented to power and status than any other candidate in either party. In the last debate, Cruz focused on the power of others and himself by invoking militarist language with phrases such as — “armies of accountants”, “enforcing the law and defending the Constitution”, and “building a grassroots army”. In the first three Republican debates, Cruz emerged as the most power-oriented candidate no matter what the debate topic.  There is a sense that in any given interaction, he first sizes up the other person’s status before deciding to pursue a conversation with them.

Marco Rubio distinguishes himself by, well, not being distinctive along any of the three dimensions.  A deeper analysis, however, suggests that he bounces around in his orientation from debate-to-debate.  For example, in the last debate, when discussing domestic and economic issues, Rubio used more power and achievement words. When discussing foreign policy, he used more affiliation words. In the first debate across topics, he was almost as power-oriented as Cruz across all topics but in the CNBC debate, he was nearly as low in power orientation as Trump and Carson.

Donald Trump has a similar profile to Carson. The one difference is that he is by far the lowest of any of the candidates in power orientation. This suggests that Trump is quite secure in his sense of power based on his success in business.  His language hints that he does not make big distinctions in the relative status of others.

Comparing the Democratic frontrunners: Clinton and Sanders

Hillary Clinton is somewhat above average in achievement orientation and, perhaps surprisingly, somewhat below average in power orientation. Similar to Jeb Bush’s situation, Hillary’s high drive for achievement could reflect an implicit comparison with her husband’s presidency. The somewhat low power drive indicates she is not overly concerned with paying attention to the status of others. Like Carson and Trump, she comes to the debates with a very strong track record and likely feels relatively secure in her own power.

Bernie Sanders is below average on achievement orientation and above average in power. He is far less concerned with winning or losing points within the traditional political arena.  Rather, he seeks to bring about a fundamental change in the culture. He is not conforming with the status quo but rather trying to overthrow it, or, as he said in the last debate, “What my campaign is about is a political revolution.”

Trends and Takeaways

Three trends are important to note. First, power orientation is related to how well candidates’ campaigns are going. The three candidates with the lowest concern for power are those who have been leading in the polls for quite some time.  Second, the two candidates highest in achievement orientation are those with a family legacy in politics. Third, overall the Democratic candidates have slightly higher concerns with affiliation than the Republican candidates. This could reflect the tone of the debates or the underlying philosophies of the two parties.

This set of analysis reveals something not only about the personalities of the leading presidential candidates but also suggests how these candidates may approach the office of president. As the election season progresses, we will examine new ways of understanding the mindsets of the remaining candidates and examine how they are changing over time.


Hogenraad, R. (2005). What the words of war can tell us about the risk of war. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 11(2), 137-151. doi:10.1207/s15327949pac1102_2

McClelland, D. C. (1961). The achieving society. Princeton: VanNostrand.

Winter, D. G. (2011). Philosopher-king or polarizing politician? A personality profile of barack obama. Political Psychology, 32(6), 1059-1081. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2011.00852.x

Winter, D. G. (2005). Things I’ve learned about personality from studying political leaders at a distance. Journal of Personality, 73(3), 557-584. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00321.x


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