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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Summary

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.