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.

Kayla N. Jordan
University of Texas at Austin

According to polls after the debate, many people viewed Hillary Clinton as the winner of the first presidential debate and Donald Trump as underprepared. However, at the beginning of the debate, Clinton got off to a shaky start whereas Trump had a relatively strong beginning. Clinton, eventually, found her footing sounding comfortable and in control while Trump seemed increasingly defensive and uncomfortable. What happened? To answer this question, we look at a linguistic marker of self-confidence: I-words (e.g. I, me, my).

People who are self-confident and secure tend to use fewer I-words. In the primary debates, both Clinton and Trump used I-words at high rates suggesting possible insecurity. In the first third of debate this week, Clinton started off using I-words more frequently than Trump. By the second third of the debate, Clinton’s I-word use dropped dramatically while Trump’s I-word use rose. Clinton’s decline in self-focus suggests a rise in self-confidence where Trump’s language is indicative of a loss of confidence. One possible explanation for their change in confidence is the issues brought up with the first third playing to Trump’s strengths and Clinton’s weaknesses before reversing. Overall, Clinton and Trump vary in the comfortability with the issues and the debate stage.

i-words-general

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

This week Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met on the debate stage for the first time. In looking at their language so far, we have found the candidates to be remarkably consistent with their earlier primary debates in their language styles. Throughout their campaigns both candidates have faced numerous challenges to their temperaments and their honesty. Given the perceptions of their weaknesses, the candidates may have tried to change how they approached the debate their first presidential debate. We examine two ways the candidates may have changed: (1) are they more analytic or more narrative and (2) are they more authentic or more distant?

Analytic Thinking

As we have discussed in previous posts, people differ in the ways they think. Some people think in a formal, logical manner indicated by the greater use of nouns, articles, and prepositions. Others rely more on stories and narrative communicating in an informal manner using more pronouns, auxiliary verbs (e.g. is, have, was), and common adverbs (e.g. really, so, very).

During the primary debates, Clinton spoke using a formal, analytic style. She focused on her policy proposals and issues and laid them out in a logical fashion. Trump had a shoot-from-the-hip, informal way of speaking using stories and anecdotes to explain his thinking. Have their thinking styles changed? In Trump’s case, no. As you can see in the graph below, his numbers are virtually identical. Trump remains very much a narrative, intuitive thinker. Clinton, on the other hand, was more narrative than normal at this debate getting closer to Trump’s thinking style. Given her opponent and some of the criticisms she has faced, Clinton may have tried to be more personable and less formal to better appeal to voters.

analytic-trump-clinton

Authenticity

The words people use also reflect how authentic or personal they sound. People who are authentic tend to use more I-words (e.g. I, me, mine), present-tense verbs, and relativity words (e.g. near, new) and fewer she-he words (e.g. his, her) and discrepancies (e.g. should, could).

In the primary debates, both Trump and Clinton came across as relatively authentic and personal though Clinton was a bit more distant. Have the candidates changed? Once again, Trump has changed very little since the primaries. He is still speaking his mind in straight-forward, authentic way. Clinton, however, has changed rather dramatically. After a few recent scandals, it is perhaps somewhat unsurprising that Clinton has become more distant and inauthentic.

authentic-trump-clinton

The Big Picture

As Clinton said in the debate, “words matter.”  Indeed, the words people use reveal important facets about them. So what does the debate language of Clinton and Trump say about them?

Clinton. Clinton’s language has changed the most from the primary debates. She went from being analytic to more narrative and from relatively authentic to rather distant. By all accounts, she spent quite a bit of time preparing for the debate to change the way she speaks to address criticisms she has faced. Her drop in authenticity could be a result of consciously altering how she normally speaks. Her drop in authenticity may also give people a sense of her being more authoritative. Given the way she has been criticized for not being open (despite often being more accurate than Trump according to fact checkers like CNN and PoliFact), shifting back to her more honest style might be in order.

Trump. When not reading from a script, Donald Trump is remarkably consistent. Trump says what he thinks and believes in what he says. Unlike Clinton, Trump did not seem to spend much time preparing for the debate. For better or worse, Trump is who he is and may not change to court new voters or change people’s perceptions.

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.

trump&clinton

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.

conventionTone

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.

conventionCertain

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.

conventionDrives

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.

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

Authenticity

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

Summary

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
Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin

People differ in the ways they think.  When approaching an issue such as immigration, some analyze the problem logically, relying on facts and theories.  Others draw on their personal experiences and stories they have heard.  Presidential candidates are no different.  By identifying how the current round of presidential hopefuls think, we can predict how they will go about making decisions if they are elected.

One way to identify thinking styles is to use computer-based text analysis methods to analyze everyday language.  Based on earlier research, we have found that analytical thinking is revealed though the high use of nouns, articles, and prepositions. The use of these parts of speech indicates that the speaker is identifying conceptual categories and organizing them in hierarchical ways.  At the opposite end of the spectrum are people who are more narrative or dynamic thinkers.  Narrative thinking is linked to low use of nouns, articles, and prepositions and high use of pronouns (such as I, she, they, it), auxiliary verbs (is, have), common adverbs (so, really), and related small common words called function words. Interestingly, the more a person is an analytical thinker, the less he or she is a narrative thinker and vice versa.

Across multiple studies, analytic thinking has been linked related to intelligence (as measured by standardized tests such as the SAT), better performance in classes across the college curriculum, and better education in high school.  Analytic thinking is also more common among leaders, older (as opposed to younger) age, and people with better health habits.  Narrative thinking is more common among younger, more impulsive, and sociable people.  Whereas analytical thinkers like to break down and analyze a problem, narrative thinkers prefer to relay their own experiences and tell stories to understand the problem.  Analytical thinkers weigh more facts; narrative thinks rely more on intuition and snap judgement. Using Daniel Kahneman’s language, analytic thinkers would think slow and the narrative thinkers would think fast.

Across this season’s debates, we have been analyzing analytic/narrative thinking to identify how each candidate naturally thinks about the world.  As the Iowa caucus grows closer, it is revealing to see how the candidates from both parties are adjusting their thinking to appeal to their audiences.

Before looking at the individual candidates, it is interesting to see how the thinking styles within the Republican and Democratic debates have differed.  Note that numbers above 50 are generally considered to reflect more analytical and logical thinking.  Numbers below 50 are tend to be more narrative, personal, and immediate.

analyticbyparty

Overall, the Democratic debates are associated with more formal and logical thinking than the Republican debates.  More interesting are the trends.  Whereas the Democrats are becoming more logical and formal over time, the Republicans are becoming less formal and more narrative and personal.

Why?  Very likely the two groups are becoming increasingly familiar with their base — especially in Iowa and New Hampshire.  When the Democratic candidates show up to a town hall, a disproportionate number of their supporters know the issues, listen to NPR, and expect reasoned answers.  The Republican candidates are trying to appeal to Tea Party supporters who rely more on Fox News and Rush Limbaugh for information.  For many, hard data is less persuasive than compelling stories.

Another explanation can be attributed to a phenomenon called language style matching.  Social psychologists have long known that people naturally mimic one another in the ways they behave, use nonverbal behaviors, and the ways they talk. Daniel Romero and his colleagues find that people who match others in a debate or negotiation are seen more positively than those whose speaking styles are unrelated to others. Other studies suggest that lower status people tend to mimic people with higher status — often unconsciously.  Among the candidates, one might expect that the frontrunners would set the linguistic tone and that the followers would match them.  As depicted in the graphs below, the patterns support the language style matching and status predictions — especially for the Republicans (the Democratic candidates are strikingly similar across all the debates).

Republicans

So how do the Republicans compare to each other and how have they changed as individual candidates? As the graph below demonstrates, the candidates’ thinking styles relative to each other have remained largely the same. Although the Republicans overall have become more informal across debates, there are some interesting differences between the candidates worth noting.

analyticrepublican

  1. Donald Trump has become more and more informal since the second debate in September. While Trump started the debates similar to fellow candidate, Ben Carson, his language has drifted further and further away from the other candidates as the debates have progressed. Trump remains an intuitive rather than an analytical thinker far more than his fellow candidates. Research suggest that someone with this type of narrative thinking style may be more impulsive when making decisions.
  2. Ben Carson hasn’t changed much over time. Since the first debate, Carson had been relatively informal and narrative focused. Carson is concerned with his political story without thinking too much about the logic or rationale behind his ideas. Carson’s language style has become somewhat more like Trump’s (whose top spot in the polls likely gives him the more status) over the across the debates. Also like Trump, his thinking style may be associated with more rash decision making.
  3. Marco Rubio is in the middle of the pack suggesting he is relying on both analytical and narrative thinking. While Rubio is working on his political narrative, he also is looking at the rationale behind it. Rubio’s thinking style has remained relatively stable across debates suggesting he may not perceive any of the other candidates as necessarily having higher status.
  4. Jeb Bush is quite similar to Rubio though Bush falls more on the analytical side. Bush tends to focus on the logic behind his plans. Like Rubio and Carson, Bush’s linguistic style has been mostly consistent through the debates.
  5. Ted Cruz has become less analytic in the debates since September, but he is still the most logical thinkers on the Republican side. His analytic language reveals a deliberative, though not necessarily better, decision making style. As Cruz has climbed in the polls, his thinking style is getting more in line with the other Republican frontrunners. At first, Cruz stood apart from the others but over time has become more similar to them.

Democrats

What about the Democrats? Both Democratic candidates are more analytic thinkers. Throughout the debates, their thinking styles have been similar suggesting they are on the same page and approach problems similarly with only minor differences across the debates.

analyticdemocrat

  1. Bernie Sanders is an analytic thinker and has been relatively consistent across debates with only small increases since the first debate. Sanders is focused on his plans for the future and on the logic behind those plans.
  2. Hillary Clinton has become more analytic since the first debate catching up to Sanders in the last debate. In the first debates, Clinton had more balance between logical and informal thinking, but as the race has become slightly more competitive, she has become slightly more analytic.

The current analyses suggest that both parties may be modifying their strategies to better appeal to the voters in the upcoming caucuses. Within the Republican party, the race has changed substantially since the first debate with all the frontrunners gaining or losing ground. In order to gain or regain support, candidates may have needed to change their approaches. Cruz and Trump have changed thinking styles the most and are the current leaders in most polls suggesting they may be the most responsive to these changes in circumstances. Rubio, Bush, and Carson, on the other hand, have changed less indicating that they might be less flexible and responsive to changing circumstances. Within the Democratic party, while Sanders has gained some ground, the race has not changed substantially. The mostly stable competition could indicate that neither candidate have felt compelled to really change the way they are approaching their campaigns.

After the Iowa Caucus, the candidates have six more opportunities to face each other in debates. We will continue to examine how these candidates compare to each other and how they may approach the presidency as voters begin deciding which two candidates will battle for that office.

References:
Ireland, M. E., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2010). Language style matching in writing: Synchrony in essays, correspondence, and poetry. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,99(3), 549-571. doi:10.1037/a0020386

Niederhoffer, K. G., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2002). Linguistic style matching in social interaction. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 21(4), 337-360. doi:10.1177/026192702237953

Romero, D. M., Swaab, R. I., Uzzi, B., & Galinsky, A. D. (2015). Mimicry is presidential: Linguistic style matching in presidential debates and improved polling numbers. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(10), 1311-1319. doi:10.1177/0146167215591168

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.

References:

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