Does Donald Trump Have the Smallest “We”? Rhetorical Insights From the Presidential Debates

posted by:

Karen Cyphers

14 March

Florida matters – this election cycle more than ever.

Heading into Tuesday’s primary, we who call ourselves Floridians are enjoying the heady feeling of being consequential: 99 delegates for the GOP, winner take all, and 246 delegates awarded proportionally between the Democrats.

A giant momentum machine that can sway the election in either direction. Intense national media attention. We know what that feels like as it relates to a presidential election and – this year – we like it.

But Florida is not an easy state to court because it’s not really one state, but a gumbo/sancocho/chicken soup of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and a variety of Latin American immigrants; deep South, Confederate-flag-waving traditionalists; Northeastern and Midwestern retirees; a large and largely liberal Jewish community; and a diverse black population with very different urban and rural profiles.

Good luck finding a common message that works here.

Given that high-stakes challenge, we decided to analyze the remaining candidates’ rhetoric and see what they’re dishing up to Florida voters, and how their messages may have evolved to be relevant to us.

Comparing Debates: What Candidates Said

We looked at keywords that popped up most often in the very first presidential debate back in August and last week’s debates in Miami.

Not surprisingly for people who want to be the leader of the free world, one of the most dominant words we found was “I.” So we thought it was worth a look to determine each candidate’s ratio of “I” vs. “we.” “I” language can be a measure of egotism but also a reflection of confidence, an assertion of leadership.

On the other hand, “we” language might reflect a candidate’s understanding that we don’t, after all, live in a dictatorship and that, in a democracy, we the people really do move forward (or backward) together.

On The “I” vs. “We” Divide

To no one’s surprise, Donald Trump leads his Republican peers in the use of “I.” As a proportion of all the words he speaks, Trump refers to himself more often than any other GOP candidate. In the two debates combined, he did so 315 times, almost doubling Rubio (103) and Cruz (87) combined. In contrast, Ted Cruz uses “I” and “we” almost equally.

Of the Democrats, Hillary Clinton has the biggest “I-we” split, using “I” 70 percent of the time and “we” only 30%. While Sanders increased his relative use of “I” in the latest debate, Clinton still far exceeds him, uttering “I” 481 times in the two debates compared with Sanders’ 257 times.

IvsWe

That said, Sanders leads among all five candidates in how frequently he refers to himself in the third person (seven times in the two debates), followed by Trump (four times).

ReferstoSelf

Shifting Issues Across Debates

We also wondered whether the leading presidential candidates shifted the issues they talked about when rolling down I-75 or I-95.

In the first round of debates, the candidates said very little about Cuba or Israel. But when they came to Miami with hopes of appealing to the state’s large blocs of immigrant and Jewish voters, those two nations were among the most frequent topics of discussion.

It turns out that only one subject (Florida’s Governor Rick Scott will appreciate this), JOBS, was frequently on the candidates’ lips from the first debate to the most recent.

To determine this, we ran an analysis of dozens of keywords and counted how many times each of the leading candidates uttered them. Everything from “economy” and “taxes” to “Islam” and “violence.”

In the first Republican debate on August 6 and the first Democratic debate on October 13, today’s leading candidates mentioned four topics above all others, in this order:

  • Iran
  • Jobs
  • War
  • ISIS

By the time the campaign made its way to Miami last week, the leading topics had a rather different look:

  • Jobs
  • Cuba
  • Immigration
  • Israel

Some topics were hot last summer… but not so much now. Mentions of banks, the economy, Iran, ISIS, Islam, Russia, small business, and veterans showed significant declines for the Miami debate, replaced by newly hot-button items like debt and trade – particularly in the Republican debate.

How Candidates’ Words Changed

For a variety of possible reasons – news events, political calculation, questions asked by moderators – how frequently candidates mentioned certain issue-related words changed from the first debate to the most recent. In the Miami debate:

  • Trump spoke less of banks, borders, immigration, and Iran; and more of Islam, Israel, and war
  • Cruz spoke less of China, Iran, ISIS, Islam, and Russia; and more of Israel, jobs, and trade
  • Rubio spoke less of banks, the economy, immigration, and small business; and more of Cuba, debt, the environment, ISIS, Israel, and trade
  • Clinton spoke less of banks, climate change, and Russia; and more of Cuba, immigration, borders, and war
  • Sanders spoke less of the economy, ISIS, Russia, veterans, and war; and more of Cuba, immigration, wages, and violence

Is this shifting rhetoric pure pandering or an appropriate attempt to be relevant to the audience? Will Florida’s diverse electorate eat it up or spit it out? Are we looking for a dominant “I” or an inclusive “we”?

Tomorrow will decide. And Florida’s decision, reflecting as we do America’s growing diversity, may well predict where this disruptive election will take us.

Article written by Vice President Karen Cyphers and Chief Operating Officer Michelle Ubben