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

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are officially rivals for the 2016 presidential election. Their acceptance speeches at their respective party conventions demonstrated the stark contrast between the two candidates. In this post, we look at three major points of divergence: the emotional tone of their speeches, the certainty they have in their beliefs, and the focus they place on power, affiliation, and achievement.


Emotional Tone

The most obvious difference between the two speeches was their tones. During the primary debates, Trump tended to be relatively positive and upbeat, but during his acceptance speech, Trump was uncharacteristically negative and pessimistic. Trump painted a dark portrait of the world. To him, the current outlook is bleak, and we have to “make America great again.” After several years of Democratic leadership, he argued that much must be changed in order to fix the country and set it on the right path.

Clinton, on the other hand, gave an upbeat, optimistic speech. Her language during the debate season was generally positive and optimistic, and her acceptance speech was even more so. For all the problems left to be solved, the nation is in a fundamentally good place. No matter what might be going wrong, people are capable of working hard and accomplishing great things. For Clinton, the American people should continue striving along the current path for progress.

Using our text analysis program LIWC, we simply calculated the percentage of emotionally-tinged words within the two acceptance speeches.   An emotional tone variable was created where a score of 100 would reflect a perfectly positive upbeat use of language and a score of 0 would be completely negative.  A score of 50 reflects an equal balance of positive and negative emotionally-related words.  Across all previous debates this season, both Trump and Clinton have received tone scores around 60.


As depicted in the graph, Clinton’s language increased in positive tone from her debates whereas Trump’s became decidedly more negative.  If you look back over our previous posts this election season, Trump’s score of 30 is lower than the majority of other politicians for any single debate; only 13% of politicians in debates had lower scores.

Belief Certainty

In addition to their emotional tones, another area in which Trump and Clinton differ significantly is belief certainty. When people are working through issues, they tend to use words like think, believe, and know which reflects cognitive processing. People who are no longer working through issues or who are more certain in their beliefs use these words less. In the graph below, we compared the candidates’ use of cognitive processing words to all the politicians in the primary debates and conventions. The numbers in the graph reflect the percentage of politicians who used more cognitive processing words than a given speech. Hence, higher scores indicate more certainty and lower scores more processing. For example, a score of 95 would indicate the 95% of all other speakers used more cognitive processing words.

Trump is more certain in his beliefs now than in the primary debates. Trump may have still been working out some of his beliefs in the primaries, but his acceptance speech indicates he has become more entrenched in his positions. Now, he doesn’t need to process his positions; he already knows what he thinks. Above everything, Trump uses language like he has the answers to the problems he is faced with.

Clinton’s language, on the other hand, is indicative of someone who may still be working through issues. While she was processing problems more during the primary debates, compared to Trump, she was still trying to understand issues. As was seen in the primary season, she engaged with the issues and her opponent, Bernie Sanders, shifting her positions to better match voters’ attitudes. Clinton knows her beliefs, but is more willing to think about alternate viewpoints and change her opinions.


Power, Affiliation, and Achievement

Finally, Trump and Clinton have different motivations that drive them. As we have discussed in previous posts, people naturally differ in the extent to which they are guided by their focus on power, achievement, and affiliation. Those concerned with power judge themselves and others by their relative status and influence. Those driven by needs for affiliation are more concerned with having and making friends and allies. Those focused on achievement use words that reflect topics such as ambition, trying, and success or failure.

Relative to Clinton, Trump is concerned with power and status. This can be seen in statements like: “It’s time to deliver a victory for the American people.” and “It is time to show the whole world that America Is Back – bigger, and better and stronger than ever before.” In the primary, Trump had relatively little concern for power. Now that he has secured the nomination, power is more central to his thoughts.  

Clinton makes more references to affiliation and achievement. It was clear she was distinguishing herself from Trump responding, “We’ll fix it together,” showing the value she places on cooperation rather than power. Clinton was more oriented toward social relationships in general. She spent time connecting to other Democrats, thanking Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden for their work. Based her language, Clinton isn’t thinking about the power others have, but rather on what they get done and how well they work with others.



Compared to their language in the primaries, both candidates shifted their language in accepting their party’s nomination. Since becoming the official nominee, Trump changed rather dramatically from being relatively optimistic to being quite pessimistic. Was this new negative tone a calculated strategy to turn voters against the Democratic party? Or did it reflect some kind of psychological turning point that signaled his own his own anxieties or insecurities?  His convention speech was also striking in that he used language with much greater certainty than ever before. During the primary debates, Trump was remarkably low in concern for power, but his acceptance speech revealed a strikingly high focus on power and status.

Clinton’s language changed less from the debates to the convention. Her convention speech was even more optimistic than in the debates. Like Trump, she was slightly more certain in her beliefs during the convention after working out the party platform. Even more so than the debates, Clinton is concerned with affiliation and achievement. Going into the general election, Clinton’s language is focused on accomplishing her plans and working with those who have supported her.

From a personality perspective, the convention acceptance speeches said a great deal about both candidates.  Clinton’s language use was consistent with what we have seen from her in the last year and, indeed, since she ran for president eight years ago. Across time and context, her language has reliably revealed optimism, awareness of different perspectives, and a focus on friends and achievement. In comparison, Trump’s speech was a fundamental departure from the past in the ways he has used words.  Normally optimistic, his convention speech was starkly pessimistic.  Normally, acknowledging different perspectives, his convention language conveyed belief, unwavering certainty.  Normally low in power orientation, his speech was quite high.

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 (www.LIWC.net).  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