Skip to main content

The First Presidential Debate: A War of Pretty Much Anything But Words

Policies and facial contortions aside, an overnight analysis of debate transcripts shows surprisingly few differences in the words used by Trump and Clinton.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Rick Wilking/AFP/Getty Images)

The weirdest thing about Monday night’s presidential debate wasn’t the candidates’ bodylanguage (not even Hillary Clinton’s shimmy). Nor was it how many times Donald Trump interrupted Clinton, or Trump’s uneasy relationship with the truth. What most stood out, according to an analysis of transcripts, was the relatively minor difference in the words spoken by the candidates.

“The words they’re using are bland,” says Simon DeDeo, an assistant professor of informatics at Carnegie Mellon University. Indeed, the main distinguishing feature was pronouns: Trump used “them,” “they,” and “I” more than Clinton, while Clinton said “we” and “us” more than Trump.

DeDeo’s analysis, one of eight scientific analyses organized by Newswise, is based on the idea that different political figures tend to use noticeably different words and rhetoric from one another. Perhaps the best-known example comes from the abortion debate: Those who support keeping abortion legal frame the issue in terms of choice, while those who want to make it illegal frame it in terms of life. DeDeo’s analysis goes beyond individual words, however, to look holistically at Trump and Clinton’s word choices and speech patterns.

“It’s gone post-verbal.”

Surprisingly, Clinton and Trump differed very little on those measures, a stark contrast with most presidential debates. Pronouns were the most important distinguishing characteristic, followed by Clinton’s use of “I think” versus Trump’s “look” (as in, “Look, I have been under audit almost for 15 years”).

“We’re missing a lot of the richness” compared with past debates, DeDeo says, citing Barack Obama’s debates with Mitt Romney and John McCain as examples of more abounding and distinct debating styles.

One other thing that stands out: While Trump spoke about 30 percent more words in total, Clinton’s vocabulary—the list of unique words she spoke, as opposed to the raw total—was 10 percent larger. “Usually if you speak more,” DeDeo writes in a follow-up email, “you get more unique words.”

That’s not to say the candidates were totally similar. Other experts who participated in the project noted important differences in facial expressions, interruptions, and even the fact that Trump showed his lower teeth more often. But as far as their word choices and patterns, “these candidates are in a race to the center,” DeDeo says. “It’s gone post-verbal.”