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Words matter — or why Clinton may be too smart for her own good

Clinton seeks to persuade with logic, Trump with emotion. For those who know anything about persuasion, appeals to facts and logic often are less successful than appeals to emotion.

Clinton’s language may suggest she is too smart for her own good if she wants to win the presidency.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

— H. L. Mencken 

Words matter. The words people choose to use tell us a lot about them. The same is true with politicians — and in the case of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton one finds a fascinating contrast in language. The two of us did a rhetorical analysis of three speeches of Trump and Clinton. Our conclusion is that Clinton may be too smart for her own good.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

For Clinton we examined her March 9 presidential debate comments, her April 19 New York state primary victory speech, and her recent and most talked about June 1 foreign policy speech. For Trump it was his March 10 presidential debate comments, his April 19 New York state primary victory speech, and his April 27 foreign policy speech.

The comments or speeches selected gave us a wide range of speech types, but also they shared patterns in terms of time or potential content. What did we find?

Trump’s language is more emotive

Racey Rodne

First, in their March debates, in terms of content, Trump displays language with more emotive or feeling types of meaning. Clinton is more likely to use language that evokes logic. The choice of words seems to confirm stereotypes about the two candidates in terms of him appealing to the heart, her to the brain. For linguistics, Trump’s rhetoric is more characteristic of the language of feeling that women use, Clinton’s a logical structure stereotypical of male language. Trump spoke at a seventh- to eighth-grade level, using few words with more than two or three syllables. Clinton spoke at an 11th- to 12th-grade level, rich with polysyllabic words. By way of comparison, the average adult in America reads at a ninth-grade level and the average newspaper is written at an 11th-grade level, according to Impact Plain Language Services, although some are at lower or higher readability levels.

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In their respective April 19 New York state primary victory speeches Trump used 1,022 words and spoke at a ninth- to 10th-grade level, while Clinton used 1,516 words at an 11th- to 12th-grade level. There was no noticeable difference in one using more logical or emotive language. If anything, an examination of their two speeches displayed more parallels in word choices than during the debates.

Finally, compare their foreign-policy speeches. Clinton again spoke at an 11th- to 12th-grade level and 36.4 percent of her words were monosyllabic. For Trump, he too spoke at an 11th- to 12th-grade level – uncharacteristic of his normal speaking patterns – but 60.8 percent of his words were monosyllabic. 

Their most used words

Clinton’s 10 most used words were:

America 26
world 25
country 24
Donald 23
Trump 23
president 17
nuclear 16
need 16
more 15
it’s 15

Trump’s 10 most used words were:

president 25
world 25
foreign 24
policy 22
again 21
America 19
look 16
we’re 16
allies 15
one 15

For their respective foreign-policy speeches one finds some overlap in words yet an overall reading of the two speeches found both of them appealing to emotions, but again this was more characteristic of Trump’s rhetoric than Clinton’s.

Clinton more often appeals to logic

What we see is that Trump overall speaks at a more simplistic level and more emotive than does Clinton, whose choice of words display more complex word structures and appeals to logic. Of course many will conclude that this proves that Clinton is smarter than Trump or that she is speaking to smarter audiences than he. That may or may not be true. But a different conclusion is that Trump more often speaks to the heart, Clinton to the brain. Clinton seeks to persuade with logic, Trump with emotion.

For those who know anything about persuasion, appeals to facts and logic often are less successful than appeals to emotion. Advertisers know this, and that is why they are successful in getting us to buy their products. Trump as a salesman too knows this. In addition, he is speaking a language closer to what more people can understand. 

What all this suggestions is a rhetorical style for Trump that is potentially more effective in moving people – one way or another – than Clinton’s language. Clinton’s language may suggest she is too smart for her own good if she wants to win the presidency. Clinton’s rhetorical style may suggest she is assuming Americans are smarter than they are or that Trump is proving that Mencken may have been correct.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where a version of this piece first appeared. Racey Rodne is a research assistant at Hamline University.   

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