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

Donald Trump is now the official presidential nominee of the Republican party. At the RNC convention, two of his former rivals, Ted Cruz and Chris Christie, returned for another moment in the spotlight. Interestingly, both also gave presentations at the 2012 RNC convention in support of Mitt Romney. Here we look at how Cruz and Christie have evolved from the 2012 convention through the 2016 primary debates to the 2016 RNC convention. We examine their language in their speeches and debates to determine how their emotional tone has shifted, how authentic they seem now, and how their thinking has changed providing a glimpse into how the Republican party has changed over these last four years.

Emotional Tone

Back in 2012, Christie was in his first term as governor of NJ. In his RNC speech, he talked about his own life, what he was doing as governor, and why he thought Mitt Romney should be president. His speech was relatively upbeat and optimistic using words like love, respect, and happy. During the 2016 primary debates, Christie lost some of that optimism, speaking more negatively. In his speech at the recent RNC, Christie devoted most of his time attacking Hillary Clinton barely mentioning Trump at all. His speech is full of negative emotion words eliciting anger and sadness like danger, death, and guilty. Christie’s latest speech is indicative of someone who is feeling defeated. Now he is stuck between the man who defeated him in the primary and a woman who he clearly dislikes, and it is understandable that Christie may be feeling somewhat depressed.

In 2012, Cruz was running for his Senate seat in Texas.  He gave a positive, optimistic speech at the RNC convention discussing his own background and beliefs while endorsing Romney as the nominee. Like Christie, his tone during the 2016 primary debates was more negative and pessimistic perhaps reflecting a change in Republican sentiment. Cruz’s tone at the RNC convention this week was remarkably different from Christie’s. He had a very positive, upbeat tone focused on his own political beliefs rather than attacking Clinton or praising Trump. His positive tone was somewhat ironic given that Cruz’s speech was met with loud boos and cat-calls from the audience due to his refusing to endorse Trump for president. Perhaps, Cruz is moving on from his failure in this cycle and looking forward to his chances in 2020.

Cruz-Christie Tone


In addition to changes in tone, sizable differences in Christie’s and Cruz’s authenticity emerged. Authenticity is a measure of how personal and honest a person’s language is. People who are more authentic tend to use more I-words (I, me, mine) and relativity-related words like new, during, and near. Authentic people also tend to use fewer she-he (he, her, his) words and discrepancy words like should, could, and must.

Christie has steadily become less authentic, and Cruz, who wasn’t very authentic to begin with, was even less so at this week’s RNC convention. Given the highly contentious primary season, it is perhaps somewhat unsurprising that two former rivals are less than authentic faced with Trump’s nomination. In speaking at a Trump-centered convention, their support for the current direction of the party may be somewhat forced.

In his speech this week, Christie made token compliments to Trump but used his time to make a case against Clinton rather than for Trump. His language indicates that his support for Trump, and perhaps his opposition of Clinton, may be less than completely sincere.

For Cruz, much of the primary season was spent fighting with Donald Trump. While Cruz did not endorse him in his speech, he did congratulate him on his nomination and had to talk to a hostile Trump-supporting crowd. Given his struggles with Trump, Cruz may have found it difficult to be sincere in support of a party that chose Trump over him.

Cruz-Christie Authenticity

Belief Certainty: Cognitive processing

Cruz and Christie have also changed in their thinking styles since 2012. When someone is working through a problem and building their beliefs, they tend to use words like think, believe, and know. These types of words reflect cognitive processing. People low in cognitive processing are more certain in their beliefs.

Christie’s cognitive processing scores have dropped over time. He has become more certain in his positions and is thinking through them as was apparent at the convention this week.

Cruz has always been someone who is certain in his beliefs. Cruz’s cognitive processing has increased slightly over time, but overall is still low. Stepping onto the national stage may have presented Cruz with more complex issues, but he knows what he believes.

Cruz-Christie CogProc


Chris Christie and Ted Cruz have handled the 2016 primary season and their subsequent defeats differently. Christie’s speech is rife with negative emotion indicating a sense of pessimism which may reflect his election defeat and rejection by Trump for the vice presidential slot. His language use also suggests emotional distancing.  His convention speech is among the least authentic and most impersonal that he has given.  At the same time, the cognitive process measure reveals a lack of introspection that he has shown in the past.

Although Cruz may be unhappy with the choice of Trump as the nominee, his language reveals that he is more optimistic about the future. Indeed, Cruz’s RNC speech was among the most upbeat he has ever given.  Among all of the candidates — both Republican and Democratic — in the 2015-2016 debates, Cruz stood out as the least authentic and the lowest in cognitive processing (or, conversely, the highest in belief certainty).  Along these dimensions, he remained the outlier. He continues to use language associated with deception mixed with a strong sense of certainty.

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

The candidates have certain phrases and topics that define their campaigns. From Trump’s slogan “Make America great again” to Sanders’ focus on Wall Street and the middle class, the words the candidates repeat shed light on the topics that grab their attention. Check out the words and topics uppermost in each candidate’s mind.

Hillary Clinton

The words that Clinton uses reflect her orientation toward achievement, work, government, and family. In the debates, she often speaks about her accomplishments and those of the Democrats which is shown in her use of the words affordable health care, voted, and support as shown below. Clinton frequently drives home her qualifications and why she would be the best president.



Bernie Sanders

Sanders knows what he believes and what he wants to accomplish and his words reflect that. He knows what the problem is (economy, middle class), who caused it (Wall Street), and how to fix it (education, health care). Sanders has a nearly single-minded focus on his worldview and vision.


Ted Cruz

Cruz’s words demonstrate his concern with power and status. Cruz is focused on the political hierarchy and his place in it. In the debates, Cruz frequently referenced both his Republican opponents, Trump and Rubio, as well as his Democratic opponents, Clinton and Obama. His word use also reflects his risk-orientation. In the policy arena, he has focused on immigration and terrorism and the threats they pose throughout the debates; more than any other candidate, Cruz is concerned with security and safety.


Donald Trump

Trump’s word use reflects his simpler, more straightforward speaking style. Trump tends to use shorter words and a more limited vocabulary. Compared to the other frontrunners who used between 2800-3400 unique words, Trump only used 2192 unique words in the debates. The words Trump most frequently used also speak to his reward orientation with words like win, great, and tremendous. Compared to the other candidates, Trump is looking to payoffs and benefits in his plans and policies.


Similarities and Differences

The word clouds represent the most common content words used by the candidates in the debates so far. The larger the font of any given word, the more frequently the word is used by the candidate. Ten words are found in every candidate’s word cloud: country, ISIS, jobs, look, need, people, president, right, said, and work. These overlapping words suggest a few points of similarity:

  • Terrorism and the economy are important issues to every candidate. The candidates might disagree on the causes, courses of action, and ultimate solutions, they agree that they are important to discuss.

  • All the candidates are trying to direct voters’ attention to important points using phrases like look at the data, threat facing America right now, and we need to rebuild.

  • Every candidate is looking to the future and what they would do if elected. They are thinking past the campaign and to their hoped-for victory, which explains their frequent use of president and country.

There are also a number of frequent words that are unique to each candidate or party:

  • Health care is a major issue for the Democrats, but it is not an issue the Republicans talk about other than repealing Obamacare. Immigration is important for Republicans, but not Democrats.

  • When discussing immigration, the Republican candidates talk about the issue quite differently. Ted Cruz talks about immigration issues broadly using words like amnesty and law. Donald Trump’s discussion of immigration is typically more narrow focusing on the border with Mexico.

  • Interestingly, though terrorism is a common topic among the candidates, Ted Cruz is the only candidate to frequently discuss the military which fits with his more aggressive approach to foreign policy.

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

As the competition for the presidential nominations heats up, we delve further into what the candidates’ words reveal about their personalities and psychological states. Using previous research, we explore which candidates sound most (and least) like a liar, a woman, a professor, a depressed person, and a president.

Who talks most like a liar?


In the last debate, Trump dubbed Cruz “Lying Ted”, and it turns out that Cruz does sound most like a liar. Cruz does not come across as a very authentic or trustworthy individual. On the other side, Donald Trump sounds the most honest. He may not be right, but he believes in what he says and says exactly what he thinks.

When people lie or evade the truth, they tend to use more would-should-could words (also called discrepancy words) and third person singular pronouns (he, she). Deception is also linked to the use of fewer I-words, words making distinctions such but and else, insightful words like think and know, words related to motion, space, and time like area and go.  

Who talks most like a woman?


Interestingly, it is not Hillary Clinton who talks most like a woman but rather Donald Trump. Trump is a popular guy who is personal and, to many, likable. Who talks most like a man? Bernie Sanders.

Past studies have found reliable differences in how men and women use language. Women tend to use more social and positive emotion words while using fewer big words, negations, articles, and prepositions as well as fewer swear words, references to money, and numbers. A more feminine language style is often viewed as more personal and warm.

Who talks most like a professor?


Ted Cruz sounds most like a professor. Cruz is a smart individual who can juggle complex ideas and form elaborate opinions and policies. At the bottom of this list is Donald Trump. Trump’s speech is straightforward and uncomplicated. Voters may like that he is more accessible, but he may not as much capacity to handle complex issues.

The intellectualism often found in professors is marked by a more frequent use of conjunctions (e.g., and, or, but, because), negations, and words related to causation and insight as well as the use of longer sentences. This intellectual style is linked openness to new experiences and better academic performance. Candidates high in a more intellectual language style may be judged as more competent and capable leaders with ideas and opinions that are more elaborate whereas candidates low in this style may be liked for their straight-forwardness and accessibility.

Who sounds most like a depressed person?


With a focus on everything going wrong in the world, Ted Cruz can appear rather gloomy. To Cruz, the world is a dangerous place with a lot of problems which may not appeal to voters who want a president who is upbeat and hopeful for the future. Despite his campaign struggles, Marco Rubio sounds the least depressed. Like the other candidates he points out all the problems in the world, but he seems more optimistic that they can be solved.

People who are depressed tend to use more references to themselves, more negative emotion words, and fewer positive emotion words. Candidates who use more depressed language come across as more pessimistic and negative. This negativity can turn off voters who typically prefer candidates who are more optimistic and positive.

Who talks like a president?


Hillary Clinton sounds most like a president. Her years of political experience may have placed her at a better vantage point for understanding what a president is like and how to approach this office. Sounding least like a president is Donald Trump. Since the beginning of the race, Trump has been far from a traditional candidate, and his language suggest he is likely to be an untraditional president.

Based on past inaugural speeches, presidents tend to use more articles, prepositions, positive emotion, and big words. Candidates who sound more presidential may be judged by voters to be better suited for the office than candidate who sound less presidential.

Trends and Takeaways

The table below shows where each of the candidates stands on each dimension. Positive numbers indicate the candidate is high on that dimension; negative numbers indicate the candidate is low on that dimension.

The extent to which each candidate talks like a president may best speak to how suitable each candidate may be for the presidency. It is interesting to note that two candidates sounding most presidential are the two Democratic candidates and the top Republican candidate, Trump, is the least presidential sounding.

While it is now known who the most likely nominees from both parties will be, the race is not over yet. As the primary season rolls on, this analysis can further illuminate who these presidential candidates are and what kind of president they might be.


Note: Scores are composites of word categories (using LIWC) mentioned previously and can be interpreted as z-scores relative to other presidential candidates. Positive numbers indicate the candidate is high on that dimension; negative numbers indicate the candidate is low on that dimension.

by Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker

Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin

In making an important decision, most of us weigh the potential payoffs against the possible costs.  We are essentially trying to balance the relative rewards and risks of that decision.  The problem of assessing risks versus rewards is at the heart of psychology because there are large personality differences between people who naturally focus more on rewards compared with those who automatically focus on risks.

Psychologists have long explored the meaning of being reward- versus risk-focused. Tory Higgins and his colleagues at Columbia University have proposed a regulatory focus theory that explains how people approach their worlds if they are naturally more promotion-oriented versus more prevention-thinking. People who pay attention to rewards tend to make riskier decisions without analyzing the downsides.  More risk-oriented people carefully consider the dangers and costs of moving forward and tend to approach life in a more defensive manner. A reward-oriented leader, for example, would be more likely to initiate aggressive action in order to gain territory, status, or goods; a risk-oriented leader might work to build a strong defense to protect against the aggressive actions of others.

The presidential debates provide rich data on how the candidates differ in being reward- versus risk-sensitive.  People who are more reward-focused use words such as achieve, optimistic, wager, and better at high rates.  More risk-oriented people tend to overuse words such as  avoid, defense, danger, and disadvantage. Indeed, our computer program LIWC2015 includes very large and comprehensive dictionaries of words that capture the language of both reward-focus and risk-focus. By tracking the language of the candidates across multiple debates, we are starting to get a reliable sense of each person’s natural degree of reward- versus risk-orientation.

In these analyses, we examine how candidates are speaking across all the debates so far. While there is some variation, the candidates are remarkably consistent in the language they use across debates suggesting reward and risk orientation are relatively stable personality traits that indicate how the candidates may approach their campaigns and possible the office of the presidency. Scores on these dimensions were standardized such that a score of 50 is average.

Three Personality Types: The Reward Seekers, the Risk Avoiders, the Middle Grounders

As can be seen in the first graph, each candidate has two scores — reward-orientated and risk-oriented language.  By comparing the relative height of the two bars, you can determine the degree that each candidate naturally approaches opportunities or avoids dangers.


Overall, there are three candidates who would be classified as strongly reward-seeking:  Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Bernie Sanders. All three focus on potential positive outcomes and are concerned with gains and benefits. They make far fewer references to risks and losses. Interestingly, the risk-focused dimension is particularly low for Carson and Sanders. While more open to change, this reward focus suggests these candidates will push for their plans and policies to be implemented as quickly as possible without fully considering possible downsides.

The one strong risk-oriented candidate is Ted Cruz. Cruz cares about safety and security. When the debates, he is thinking about things that can go wrong. His foreign policies involve strengthening America’s defenses and responding to perceived threats — both external to and within the U.S.  His consistent use of risk-oriented language suggests a decision making style that is defensive and based on maintaining the status quo.

The remaining three candidates, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Marco Rubio, use language that suggests a more balanced orientation between risk and reward. Overall, Bush, Clinton, and Rubio may make risky decisions that are, however, more carefully considered. This balanced approach tends to depend on the type of policy with a security-minded foreign focus and a riskier domestic focus as can be seen in the graph below.

Digging deeper: Risk and reward when talking about foreign versus domestic issues

Across the board, Carson, Trump, and Sanders use reward-related more than risk-related language whether talking about foreign or domestic topics.  As can be seen in the second graph below, the remaining candidates are more nuanced depending on the questions they are addressing.

Bush, Cruz, Rubio, and Clinton tend to be moderately high in reward orientation when dealing with domestic issues and lower in reward language when dealing with foreign policy issues.  (It should be noted that “foreign policy” has really been restricted to discussions of terrorism and little else in all the debates.)  These same four candidates are also very high in risk orientation language when addressing foreign but not domestic policies.

It is important to note that the two outliers in the discussion are Cruz and Carson.  Cruz is disproportionate to the other candidates in his extraordinarily high risk-focused language when talking about foreign policy and is strikingly low rate of reward language on the same topic.  Carson is similarly over the top in his reward language when talking about domestic topics compared to his language on any other topics.



Like our previous posts, these analyses reveal how these candidates are approaching their campaigns and how they may behave if elected. In particular, risk versus reward focus can provide insight into how each candidate approaches decision making.

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.


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

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