A Look into the Second Clinton-Trump Debate

October 10, 2016

Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
University of Texas at Austin

After one of the biggest scandals of the election season so far, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met in debate for the second time. While Clinton has seen substantial gains in the polls since the first debate, Trump has been steadily losing ground with many of his own party withdrawing support in the days after the latest scandal. Did these changes in the campaigns affect the candidate’s in last night’s debate? Here we examine how the tone of the candidates as well as their sense of status may have shifted.

Emotional Tone

As with the first debate, both of the candidates launched attacks on their opponent. There were even questions addressing the negativity in the current election. Did the language in the last debate show any increasing negativity?

The graph below shows how the candidates’ emotional tones have shifted from the primary debates to the first general election debate to the most recent debate. The language of both candidates in the primaries was relatively optimistic and upbeat. As they headed into first debate with Trump trailing in the polls, Clinton maintained that sense of optimism whereas Trump’s language took a pessimistic turn. In the latest debate, Trump fell further into negativity where Clinton retained her positivity.

second-debate-tone

Clout

People who are high in clout speak confidently with a sense of certainty. They tend to use we-words and social words more while using I-words, negations (e.g. no, not), and swear words less.

Historically, both Trump and Clinton have addressed their audiences with a relatively high degree of confidence. While they were still battling their primary opponents at the time, both were consistently in the top of the field lending a sense of power in their position. In the first Clinton-Trump debate, Clinton’s word usage suggested a greater sense of status or power whereas Trump’s language was more hesitating and weak. In last night’s second debate, the candidates’ language styles reversed.  Despite his recent difficulties, Trump’s words revealed greater confidence that Clinton’s.

second-debate-clout

The Big Picture

With little time left before election day, the candidates are running out of time to gain votes. Given numerous difficulties, both are dealing with the fallout and managing voters’ perceptions. The ways in which their language has shifted suggest different reactions to their campaigns’ problems.

Donald Trump is speaking with increasing certainty and confidence but, at the same time, revealing darker and more pessimistic tones. While Trump’s scandals have garnered more attention, Hillary Clinton is not without problems of her own. In contrast to Trump, she is maintaining an optimistic tone but speaking with less certainty.

Linguistic features of candidates are very poor predictors of their electability.  Sometimes we want a warm, approachable leader and other times we want a no-nonsense autocrat. Sometimes, we just want a change. Just paying attention to their words can tell us a great deal about their personalities but much less how effective they will be in governing a nation.

The 2016 election cycle has baffled researchers across the political spectrum. Donald Trump is an aberration rarely seen at the highest levels of politics.  Linguistically, he is authentic and supremely confident but at the same time simple and not concerned with logical or formal reasoning.  There are times when we seek someone like this.  If we are buying a new car and we know nothing about cars, the salesperson who comes across as authentic, confident, and doesn’t bog us down with details can be extremely appealing.  And if the salesperson assures us, “trust me, I know more about cars than anyone”, how could we go wrong?

Trump’s appeal gets at the heart of the human psyche.  In an increasingly complex world, no one has an great understanding of the implications of major decisions.  Every political, economic, or policy change has major unintended consequences that overwhelm some of the greatest minds of our generation.  At some point, many of us simply turn to that confident new voice that promises a simple, straightforward solution that is guaranteed to work.

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