Kayla N. Jordan
University of Texas at Austin

While candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have already been campaigning for months, the primary season hit a new phase this week with the first debates between the candidates. Here, in the first of several blog posts about the 2020 election, I use computer-based text analysis methods to start to get a sense of the psychology of the candidates. Rather than their positions or policies, the goal of these posts will be to understand the candidates as people by considering questions like how are they thinking, how are they relating to other people, and how are they communicating their ideas.

The system the majority of the analyses will rely on is a program developed in the Pennebaker Lab at UT Austin called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC2015 (available for academic research at liwc.net or for commercial application at Receptivit.com). LIWC can analyze any text to determine the percentage of words in the text indicative of negative emotion and cognitive processing and 80+ other dimensions. LIWC has been used in hundreds of studies in multiple disciplines ranging from psychology to business to medicine to political science to computer science. To learn more about some of these studies, check out this link.

So what can LIWC tell us about the 2020 presidential candidates? As the election season unfolds I will be looking at many dimensions including motivations, confidence, and time orientation, but for now I want to look at three central psychological dimensions: thinking style, emotional tone, and authenticity. Also, rather than cramming in all 20 candidates, I am going to focus on the ten candidates who, at the moment at least, seem to have the best chances of securing the nomination: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Kristen Gillibrand.

Thinking Style

People naturally differ in the ways that they think and communicate ideas. On one end of the spectrum, there are people who are very analytic, logical thinkers. Analytic thinkers organize their ideas in formal, hierarchical ways focusing on concepts and ideas. On the other end of the spectrum are people who think in narrative, intuitive ways. Narrative thinkers organize their ideas more informally, often telling stories and focusing on people and actions. Linguistically, analytic thinkers use more articles and prepositions while narrative thinkers use more pronouns, auxiliary verbs, adverbs, negations, and conjunctions. Check out this link or this link to learn more about the research on analytic thinking. So where do the Democratic candidates fall on this spectrum?

The Analytic Thinkers: Of the 10 candidates, 3 stand-out as the most analytic: Buttigieg, Gillibrand, and Sanders. These candidates talked about their policies and ideas in logical ways. They relied more on facts and figures focusing on concepts and details rather than stories and anecdotes. For example, take Bernie Sanders. When talking about his health care plans, he laid out the problem, gave statistics, and stated his proposals rarely making his positions personal.

The Narrative Thinkers: On the narrative end of the spectrum, Klobuchar, Biden, and Castro stand out. Unlike their analytic counterparts, they tell stories and anecdotes focusing on people and actions more than concepts and abstractions. Rather than making structured arguments, these candidates communicates their ideas in looser, more informal ways. Compare Biden’s discussion of health care to Sanders’. Where Sanders gave impersonal arguments, Biden connected his policy plans to his families’ personal experiences with cancer.

The In-Between Thinkers: Rather than falling on either end of the spectrum, four candidates fall somewhere in the middle: Harris, Booker, O’Rourke, and Warren. Drawing on both styles, these four candidates use both formal, logical structures as well as stories and personal experience. For example, when Elizabeth Warren talked about gun violence she used not only statistics and structured policy proposals but also anecdotes from her time on the campaign trail talking to voters.

6.27.19.Analytic

Note. Analytic thinking scores are standardized composite scores ranging from 0 (most narrative) to 100 (most analytic).

Emotional Tone

Emotion has become a central feature of political campaigns and has been studied in a variety of ways such as fear appeals and negative advertising. Here, however, I focus on what the use of emotional language might say about a person’s general outlook. A more optimistic, upbeat outlook is indicated by positive emotional words such as love, respect, and happy. A more pessimistic outlook is indicated by the use of negative emotional words such as anger, death, and hurt. What were the candidates’ emotional outlooks in the first debates?

The Optimists: Three candidates were high in positivity: Gillibrand, Harris, and Klobuchar. These three women candidates all presented optimistic, upbeat messages. Gillibrand and Klobuchar, in particular, come across as affable during the debates occasionally mixing in humor and provide hopeful views of the future.

The Pessimists: Four candidates were on the negative side: Buttigieg, Sanders, Biden, and Booker. These candidates presented less positive images painting more pessimistic views of the future. Bernie Sanders was the clearest representation of negativity. For Sanders, there are many serious problems that must be addressed immediately and decisively to avoid a future filled with doom and gloom.

The Realists: The three remaining candidates fell in the middle: Warren, Castro, and O’Rourke. For these three candidates, their outlook is mixed with serious, urgent problems needing solutions, but with a hopeful outlook that such problems are solvable.

6.27.19.Tone

Note. Tone scores are standardized scores ranging from 0 (most negative) to 100 (most positive).

Authenticity

Politicians are often portrayed as less than honest, hence a final important dimension to consider is authenticity. Individual high on authenticity come across as honest and straightforward while those low on authenticity come across as evasive and impersonal. Linguistically, studies have found that authentic individuals tend to use more I-words, present-tense verbs, and relativity words (e.g. old, far, here) and fewer she-he words and discrepancy words (e.g. could, should). How authentic are the Democratic candidates?

The Most Authentic: The most authentic candidate was Pete Buttigieg closely followed Sanders and Castro with Booker is a somewhat distant fourth. In their debates, Buttigieg and Castro, in particular, came across open and personal giving straightforward, clear answers to questions. Warren, Klobuchar, Biden, and Gillibrand fall in the middle of pack, but were slightly closer to the authentic candidates than to the inauthentic candidates. These four generally came across as straight-forward and personal but with moments of distance and evasion.

The Least Authentic: The least authentic candidate was Beto O’Rourke with Kamala Harris in a close second. O’Rourke was particularly striking in the debates. Despite the large amount of attention he received in his 2018 Senate Run, O’Rourke during the first debate came across as distant and impersonal often giving responses seeming robotic and rehearsed.

6.27.19.Authentic

Note. Authenticity scores are composite standardized scores ranging from 0 (least authentic) to 100 (most authentic). In political contexts, the range is generally limited with scores effectively ranging from 0 to 50.

Going Forward

These are just a few initial insights into the 2020 Democratic candidates, and as we gather more data throughout the primary season, we will gradually gain a clearer sense of who these candidates are and how they might behave as leaders. That said, there is one broad takeaway from this first look at the 2020 candidates. While many of the candidates have similar (or even identical) policy positions, the analysis presented here shows the candidates have very different personalities and communication styles. The ideological similarities between candidates in a primary election can make choosing between them difficult, and I hope that the psychological views on the candidates that I will be presenting in these blog posts can provide additional information for voters who want another perspective of the candidates.

Check back later for further insights of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates as I analyze the debates and other (linguistically) interesting campaign events this election cycle. For more information on this project, contact Kayla Jordan (kaylajordan@utexas.edu). For more information about LIWC, check out this link.

Advertisements

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 and James W. Pennebaker
University of Texas at Austin

On the night of October 4, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence met in the first and only vice presidential debate. Compared to their presidential counterparts, both have stayed out of the limelight and have avoided any significant controversy. Very soon, however, one will soon be first in line for the presidency. What do their words say about them? Are they similar to their presidential partner or radically different?.

We have discussed emotional tone and belief certainty in the blog before, most recently to analyze Clinton and Trump’s acceptance speeches. Emotional tone reflects a candidate’s optimism versus pessimism through the use of positive and negative emotion words. Belief certainty indicates the extent to which candidates are absolutely certain where they stand on various issues versus are still working through issues.  When people are still attempting to understand the complexity of a topic, they tend to use more cognitive processing words like think, know, and believe. Those who think they know Truth don’t need such words.

Emotional Tone

In an election spawning many insults and personal attacks, the emotional tone of Clinton and Trump has been surprisingly positive throughout the primary debates. Clinton maintained that optimism in the first general election debate whereas Trump turned more pessimistic. After a week of Clinton gains and Trump losses in the polls, how did their running mate’s sound?

Surprisingly, both VP candidates depart from the tone of their presidential counterparts. In contrast to Trump’s recent negativity, Pence’s words were relatively upbeat and optimistic even if his facial expressions didn’t always match. Kaine, on the other hand, who typically projects a happy and upbeat image, took a more pessimistic, negative tone in the debate opposite to Clinton’s consistent optimistic outlook.

vp-tone

Belief Certainty

Both Clinton and Trump are relatively low in belief certainty. Even in the first general debate, Clinton and Trump used language indicating that they were still processing issues and beliefs. In a debate in which Pence and Kaine focused on the presidential candidates rather than their own positions, it is worth noting if they are processing issues like their running mates’ beliefs or their own.

Kaine and Pence displayed high levels of belief certainty in their debate. Both VP candidates are dedicated to their candidates’ stances and stand by their positions. While Kaine’s certainty is unsurprising given his long standing agreement with Clinton on many issues, Pence’s certainty is somewhat unexpected. Pence initially supported another candidate in the primary and has held many positions in opposition to Trump. Despite past disagreements, Pence has embraced Trump’s views. Based on previous debates by all other candidates during the 2016 election cycle, the level of certainty of Kaine and Pence would qualify them both as “True Believers.”

vp-certainty

The Big Picture

Though the vice presidential picks are unlikely to influence the outcome of the election, one of them may well be president one day. Their language in their debate suggest two men who are loyal running mates trying to paint their own candidate in the best light while putting the opposing candidate in the worst light. Kaine’s approach focused on highlighting Trump’s faults whereas Pence tried to defend his candidate presenting an analytic, positive argument for his candidacy.

Not since Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders have we heard candidates speak with such certainty about their positions.  In many ways, very high belief certainty signals a leadership style that is ideological and uncompromising.  If the two VP candidates have adopted their candidates’ views as their own, the text analysis results could be a red flag for voters are looking for an open-minded leader who can compromise across the aisle.  If the candidates were merely speaking with certainty about the presumed beliefs of Clinton and Trump, then the certainty results provide less information about how the VP candidates would think and behave on their own.