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.

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

One of the most frequently used words in the English language is “I”. The use of this small word has been linked to honesty, depression, status, and other psychological dimensions. In this post, we explore how the leading candidates are using I-words (including other first person singular pronouns such as me, my, and mine ) and what these words suggest about the candidates’ personalities and mental states.

People who frequently use I-words are more self-focused. They are thinking and talking about what they are doing and how they are feeling. The use of I-words can convey whether a person is personal versus distant and insecure versus confident. High “I” users tend to be personal but insecure whereas low “I” users tend to be confident yet psychologically distant.

The personal versus distant aspect of I-word use is best illustrated by studies of honesty and deception. Across several studies the best predictor of honest language is the use of I; people who are lying tend to avoid using I to distant themselves from their deception. The low use of I-words can also be indicative of self-confidence.Studies of status have found people of higher status tend to use fewer I-words and President Obama, who uses fewer I-words than any other modern president, is often rated as the most self-confident.

Not surprisingly, the presidential candidates differ in their use of I-words across the debates.  Particularly revealing is how they compare with current and past presidents in unscripted sessions such as in press conferences. The similarities and differences between candidates and past presidents can illuminate what kind of president the candidates might be.



  1. Donald Trump uses I at much higher rates than any other candidate.  Trump’s speaking style is quite personal and sometimes self-effacing.   In some ways, his I-word usage is consistent with feelings of insecurity.  As the only frontrunner without a political background, his lack of experience on political issues potentially reveals his weaknesses which he sometimes covers with bluster, distraction, and attacks on others.  It is interesting that the two past presidents who used I-words at comparable rates were George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford — neither of whom were considered experts in hard-ball presidential politics.
  2. Ted Cruz uses Ifar less than Trump but slightly more than the other frontrunners. Interestingly, Cruz still uses I-words at lower rates than any modern U.S. president and at rates almost identical to Obama. Cruz’s more average use of I-words suggests he is self-confident and emotionally distant.
  3. Marco Rubio has the lowest rate of I-word use among any frontrunner or past president. More than any other candidates, Rubio likely comes across as impersonal and distant.
  4. Jeb Bush’s rate of I-word usage is similar to that of Ted Cruz and of President Obama. Bush’s style of speaking is more impersonal than most other candidates and previous presidents. Like Cruz, Bush likely has more self-confidence.


  1. Hillary Clinton is more self-focused than Bernie Sanders. Clinton is quite personal in her language style often speaking of her record, as a Senator and Secretary of State, and her plans if she were elected. Her relatively high use of I-words could indicate she may be somewhat insecure and anxious perhaps reflecting her ongoing struggles with scandals from her time at the State Department. Compared to previous presidents, her use of I-words is similar to LBJ and, interestingly, Bill Clinton.
  2. Bernie Sanders uses I-words at rates lower than Hillary Clinton but higher than most of the Republican field. He uses I-words at rates comparable to George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and JFK. Sanders uses both personal and distant language to explain his positions. While he comes across as relatable, he is still focused on the political issues and his policy proposals.

Trends and Takeaways

It is interesting to note the leaders in both parties, Trump and Clinton, use I-words the most. Their personal way of speaking undoubtedly helps them sound warmer and more sociable than the other candidates.

It is also interesting to note the differences between the parties. The Democrats are quite similar to each other. The Republicans, on the other hand, are striking with Donald Trump exceptionally high and Marco Rubio quite low compared to the others. From a language perspective, the Democratic race is a battle for basic ideas and values whereas the Republican contest is more a battle of personalities.

While it is advantageous for a leader to be likable and warm, self-confidence is also important in leadership. Likability may help a president’s approval ratings and be useful in interacting with allies and adversaries.  Other qualities such as thinking style, clout — or the ability to command respect — and raw intelligence may be more helpful when making complicated political decisions.


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.


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).


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.


  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.


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.


  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.

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

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.


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

by James W. Pennebaker and Kayla N. Jordan

Department of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin

Executive Summary

Computer analyses of the language of the candidates in the most recent debate reveal some basic personality and psychological differences.  The primary comparisons are between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as well as the ways they differed from the most likely Republican nominees: Bush, Fiorina, Rubio, and Trump.  The main findings include:

  • Clinton is much more positive in emotional tone than Sanders. Her levels of positivity are comparable to the most positive Republican, Jeb Bush.
  • Sanders is somewhat more of an analytical, formal thinker than Clinton.  All the candidates, however, are reasonably similar with the exception of Donald Trump — who appears incapable of thinking in a formal, logical way.
  • Sanders and Clinton use language that comes across as authentic and honest in ways similar to Trump.  Fiorino, Bush, and Rubio are significantly lower than the others in authenticity.
  • Sanders’ language suggests greater clout and more power-awareness than Clinton’s language.
  • The male candidates across parties tend to use male-centric language at high rates with Sanders and Rubio being the most male-centric. For the female candidates, Clinton is balanced in her gender references while Fiorino uses slightly female-centric language.


This is the first of several brief blog posts about the 2016 election.  Our plan is to use some sophisticated computer-based text analysis methods to get a better sense of the social and psychological dimensions of the candidates.  No platforms or positions discussed here.  Just people’s basic thinking, emotional, and interpersonal styles.  

The basic system we rely on will be a computer program developed in our lab, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC (pronounced “Luke”, and available for research purposes at www.liwc.net, or for commercial purposes through www.Receptiviti.com).  LIWC analyzes any kind of text and calculates the percentage of words that are emotional, cognitive, and another 80 or so dimensions.  There are now hundreds of studies in political science, business, psychology, and other disciplines that have used it.  For a brief summary of articles, check this link or this one.  The more recent version of the program, LIWC2015, has just been released and has a number of dimensions particularly well-suited to political campaigns.

OK, let’s get serious.  There are only two viable candidates for president in the Democratic race right now — Clinton and Sanders. O’Malley made a credible showing but until his ratings reach double digits, we’ll stick with the front runners.  Biden may join the team eventually but let’s put him aside since he was a no-show for the October 13th debate.  

Although LIWC can analyze a mind-boggling number of dimensions, we will focus on only a handful: emotional tone, thinking style, authenticity, power and clout, and sexism (relative referencing of males to females).

Emotional Tone

Historically, the American electorate has preferred more upbeat and optimistic candidates to more negative or hostile candidates.  The simplest way to measure emotional tone is simply to calculate the total number of words that have a positive connotation (such as happy, success, good) or a negative one (anger, death, hurt).  Across the board, Clinton was far more optimistic and upbeat than Sanders.  

It’s also interesting to compare the emotional states of Clinton and Sanders to the most likely candidates on the Republican side — Bush, Rubio, Fiorina, and Trump (sorry to those of you who are rooting for Cruz or Ben Carson or one of the others — it’s not gonna happen).  As you can see in the graph, Clinton’s emotional state is similar to Jeb Bush, Rubio, and Trump. Sanders and Fiorina are both impressively low.   


     Note that the Emotional tone index is a weighted score that ranges between 0 (very negative) and 100 (very positive).

Thinking Style

The words people use in everyday language can reveal their natural thinking style.  There are at least two ways to capture thinking styles that are related to the debates.  The first measures people’s natural ways of trying to understand, analyze, and organize complex events. We have devised a metric called the categorical-dynamic index, or the CDI.  A high score on the CDI is associated with analytical, formal, and logical thinking.  A low score is often associated with more narrative thinking where the speaker is in the here-and-now.  The CDI has been found to be related to college grades, measures of intelligence, and various markers of academic success.

The second measure, which we call Cognitive Processing, reflects the extent that people are trying to work out a problem in their minds.  For example, if you were asked to describe the most efficient way to get from your home to the City Hall in a particular town about 100 miles away, you would likely use words such as think, believe, realize, know, and other cognitive processing words. However, if you knew precisely how to get there because you had driven that route dozens of times, you would not use cognitive processing words.  In other words, if you are still trying to figure out a problem, you use cognitive processing terms; if you are certain that you know “the answer”, you don’t use these words.

In terms of raw intelligence and the ability to think analytically, Sanders scores slightly higher than Clinton. In fact, most of the likely Republican nominees are in the same range.  The one who scores far, far below the rest is Donald Trump.  Trump shoots from the hip and is guided by his intuition. He is not a logical or analytical thinker.

Of all the candidates, Hillary Clinton scores highest on cognitive processing — meaning she is someone who continues to work through issues as they come up.  Bernie Sanders, however, is the lowest of all the candidates.  This suggests that he has already thought through his positions and is most entrenched in his beliefs in that he is no longer thinking about them as much as the others.



Over the years, multiple labs have developed algorithms that tap the degree to which people are personal, honest, and authentic.  The authenticity measure is made up of words such as I-words (I, me, my), present tense verbs, and other dimensions previously associated with telling the truth.  While the Democrats are quite similar to each other in terms of authenticity, they are strikingly higher than the Republican candidates with the exception Trump.


Clout and Power-Awareness

There are at least two ways to think about power, status, and clout. The first, which we call clout, is the kind of power that is seen in a strong leader.  A person with clout speaks with confidence and a sense of certainty. People who have clout tend to use we- and social words more and I-words, negations, and swear words less.  Overall, Sanders uses language that suggests more clout than Clinton.  Although Fiorina was far higher than Sanders in the last Republican debate and Trump was somewhat lower than Clinton.

The second measure of status is power awareness.  That is, to what degree are people aware of people with more or less power than they have?  When you walk into a room, to what degree do you notice the relative status of others?  The power-awareness measure captures the degree to which people use words such as command, boss, and defeat.  As depicted in the table, Sanders is much more power-aware than Clinton and is at the same level as the most power-aware Republican Marco Rubio.  It’s interesting that Trump is by far the least power-aware of all the candidates. In his mind, he already has the most power and there is no reason for him to have to size up other people along this dimension


Male-Centric Language (A marker of sexism, perhaps?)

The ways people use words tell us where they are paying attention.  If a speaker uses a high rate of words such as women, females, she and her, and relatively few references to males, the speaker is simply thinking and talking about women more.  Is this sexist language?  Maybe, maybe not.  Does this speaker always make more references to women than men?  If so, the person certainly isn’t paying much attention to people of the male persuasion.

By analysing references to females and males, we can get a sense of candidates’ natural orientations to women and men.  We aren’t warranting that this is a measure of overt sexism but it may be a subtle or implicit signal of gender bias.

Check out the graph. The numbers refer to the percentage of all gender references that are male.  Numbers above 50% suggest a male bias; numbers below 50% hint at a female bias.  Overall, Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina use gendered language very differently than the male candidates.  Clinton referred to males and females at similar levels; Fiorina made more references to women than men — partly based on the questions she was asked in the last debate.  The men, however, were far more gendered in their language than the women. It wasn’t even close.  The two who were most male-centric were Sanders and Rubio.


In the Future

This is the first of several posts about the 2016 election.  The current analyses are relatively cursory but give an interesting perspective on the most likely nominees for the Democratic and Republican parties.  For more information about the current project contact Kayla Jordan or James Pennebaker.  More information is available about the basic research behind LIWC and commercial uses.