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

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

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.

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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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/08/2016 - 08:55 am.


    The problem I have always had with Clinton and her language is that it is excessively lawyered. No other politician I can think of is more artful in her use of ambiguity, more precise in the ways she employs vagueness. She is someone who uses the technicality of truth as a weapon of deception. And what’s worse, at least from a political perspective, is that she doesn’t have the communication skills, the good actor’s gift of plausibility that makes it work.

  2. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 06/08/2016 - 08:56 am.

    Word games is it now?


  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 06/08/2016 - 09:08 am.


    …,,,what is there left to say on this word game so suggestively categorizing it all down to either/or… logic and emotion; brain and heart… conclusively shouldering I assume, an ‘academic’ approach?

    All I can say is …in the beginning was the word and the word was with deception and deception was the word.

    What were you sipping…very strong tea; with one lump or two?

    Yet, that may be, that’s all the ‘people’ are left with…word games on a summer’s eve?

  4. Submitted by Jim Million on 06/08/2016 - 10:25 am.

    Certainly smart…

    Nobody denies the native intelligence. My long-term observation is “too clever.”

    The word list: One should strike out common items, leaving those of differentiation for better insight.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/08/2016 - 11:45 am.

    Forgive me, Professor Schultz, but any language professional would say that you have done a strikingly simplistic and unenlightening comparison of a set of separate **words** in several speeches of two candidates. Your conclusions are unfounded because of that incompleteness.

    You claim to address rhetoric, but rhetoric includes not just semantics (word “resonance”) but syntax, which you don’t even mention. You have not shown, therefore, the rather kindergarten-level rhetorical structures that Trump uses. which include frequently incomplete sentences, statements loaded with adjectives rather than conceptual substance, and emphatic repetitiousness. He hops from one topic to another in the same sentence, without coherent connection, and he has a pronounced tendency to wander. He often speaks off the cuff, without preparation and without paying attention to much else BUT emotions. A very problematic bunch of rhetorical features in someone who would purport to be our President.

    Hillary Clinton, by contrast, speaks in full sentences that are often complex constructs, her statements are much more substantive, and she uses classical rhetorical structures. As lawyers do: she develops an argument. She’s smart, and she’s articulate about matters she’s pretty much an expert with. She also (see the June foreign policy speech, where she had people rolling in the aisles with laughter over her skewing of Trump) can imitate Trump’s own labeling tactics (see adjectives) in sophisticated rhetorical structures. Clinton entertains the mind. We’re supposed to dislike that?

    What are we supposed to make of your analysis? That Secretary Clinton is “cold” and “logical” and “heartless”? I don’t think you can say any of that without a preconception–aka a bias or prejudice–of this woman. And of Trump, that he speaks to our hearts? Please!!!

  6. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/08/2016 - 11:59 am.

    what are elections about?

    Clinton too smart for her own good? Message to political scientists. Elections are not about getting the job. They are about doing the job. In 2000, the US had a choice between a “nice guy” and smart guy. The “nice guy” won. Fact, was, he was not nearly as nice as people thought and that he made stupid mistakes that cost many lives – thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who were already suffering under a tyrant. We made that mistake once – but twice.

    Trump uses feelings words – like women as “pigs.” That is not a nice guy talking, or one who is very smart, as why risk alienating half of the electorate by making piggish comments.

    And a couple guys, talking about a woman who is “too smart for her own good.” What is that about? I certainly hope you aren’t pulling that kind of argument on your female colleagues.

    The whole mistake of this article is that you compare the grade level of the words and the use of logical versus emotional arguments without any consideration to the messages that are being communicated. There was once a very persuasive politician who talked about the natural superiority of his people (something they found very stirring) and motivated them to support hiis program to “take back their country” back from undesirables and protect his country’s citizens wherever they lived with little regard to the rights of other nations.

    Being good political scientists, I’m pretty sure you know who I’m talking about. A political candidate who effectively communicates a toxic message that motivates people to carry out violence is not better than someone who is smart and moral enough to use reason and compassion for others as her call to action..

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/08/2016 - 12:21 pm.


    To me, Hillary has a lawyer’s intelligence. When called upon, she masters a brief well, but what she knows is in the brief, and when the need for the brief is over, she does a memory dump and forgets what’s in it.

    Hillary drives me crazy a lot and one of the things she says it always does the trick. When confronted with an issue that is off topic, way too often she says some variation of “No one has ever raised that issue with me before.” She said it when someone asked her about one of her husband’s signature accomplishments, the crime bill. How could she possibly be unprepared to talk about that issue? But I guess it just wasn’t on the reading list prepared by her staff, so she didn’t feel the need to go beyond that.

    I am often struck by how, despite her reputation as a hard working policy wonk, she seems unprepared to answer questions. If nothing else, the problems she has had explaining away her emails is a cautionary tale about the perils of political unpreparedness.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/08/2016 - 06:16 pm.


      I find Clinton to be extremely well prepared, especially compared to Bernie Sanders, who came across like Sarah Palin in that New York Daily News interview. She has run circles around him as far a policy knowledge goes. I’ll take her duck on the crime bill question over Sanders’ bald-face lies about a bill he actually voted for.

      • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/09/2016 - 06:20 am.


        At the risk of being tautological, she is well prepared when she prepares well. But there are gaps in her preparation, and they have have been huge and hurtful. She doesn’t understand how computers work, and that has gotten her into an immense amount of trouble. In some ways she doesn’t seem connected to the politics. After the years she has had to familiarize herself, not being prepared to discuss and defend and even criticize her husband’s crime bill is just weird.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/09/2016 - 10:01 am.

      I agree with Hiram

      It’s clear for example that HRC was simply not prepared for the challenge Sanders presented and never really did form an effective response. Were it not for the various advantages conferred by the party machine and the media (the nomination process is explicitly designed to suppress votes for “insurgents” like Sanders) she likely would not have prevailed at the convention. These are advantages that won’t be available in the general election.

      I was likewise surprised by her unpreparedness in the Florida debate. Despite the fact that she was talking to an audience comprised of refugees from Latin American dictatorships (most of whom were installed with US backing) she applauded regime change policies. She actually referred to “disappearing” people as if it were a feature of Castro’s regime rather than the Argentine Junta that the US installed and supported. This is a huge potential liability among Hispanic voters. Trump is just wild and non-ideological enough to pivot on that and neutralize her advantage with that demographic much more effectively that is generally anticipated.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/08/2016 - 01:17 pm.


    The professor does postulate a dichotomy between logic and emotion. I don’t know that the two are mutually exclusive. Hillary’s basic problem is that she is a dreadful communicator, and that really a problem of emotion or logic. As his speech before the Democratic convention in 2012 proved, Bill Clinton is quite capable of effectively linking emotion and logic. The most effective communicator now active in Democratic politics now, Elizabeth Warren, can do that too.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/09/2016 - 08:55 am.

    I agree with Hiram and concur with this analysis

    We could point to flaws in the analysis but I think it correctly identifies one of Clinton’s problems, and explains her high distrust numbers. Democrats get it wrong when they assume that negative attitudes about HRC have NOTHING to do with HRC and everything to do with republican attacks and negative media.

    In clinch, Clinton does talk like a lawyer, and the truth is people don’t trust lawyers. I think the clearest example of Clinton lawyering can be found in her Florida debate with Sanders. At one point the moderators asked each candidate if they would deport children. Sander said: “no”. Clinton simply refused to answer the question several times for several minutes before finally kind of saying: “no”. I remember watching at the time and thinking: “She’s lawyering”.

    It makes a difference. We like to think that voters in modern democracies are intelligent but G.W. Bush got elected twice and he was probably the least intelligent person to ever run for president. He was certainly less intelligent and knowledgeable than either Gore or Kerry, but he got the votes. I remember one particular incident wherein Gore made some kind of basic mathematical observation and Bush responded: “he thinks he invented math”. That comment was literally incoherent and devoid of substance… yet it devastated Gore.

    Getting back to Clinton, basically what this article points to is one of many characteristics that make Clinton a truly awful campaigner. Guys like me have been saying all along that if anyone can lose to Trump, it’s Clinton. The fact that democrats consistently choose weak candidates is systemic problem that has put the entire nation at risk. For the life of her Clinton simply cannot project sincerity and people respond negatively to that.

  10. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/09/2016 - 12:37 pm.

    Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000. He just didn’t win the electoral college count, mostly because the Supreme Court got in there and called off the recount. So much for “nice but stupid” versus the ‘smart but dull” guys in 2000.

    By the time Hillary Clinton got to debates, her style was not just that of the excellently-trained lawyer that she is. It was that of a seasoned diplomat. Ever ask a diplomat a tough question? They absolutely do not answer directly, and will never utter a simple “yes” or “no”; they are artists at dancing around the issue. There are lots of diplomats on the PBS News Hour (not so many on Fox or CNN, where flaming opinions are the norm).

    Secretary Clinton has learned discretion. That is a Plus, folks. Just look at the irrepressible lummox the GOP is putting forward, and imagine all the trouble he would cause worldwide.

    I rest my case.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/11/2016 - 08:35 am.

      Uh huh…

      Al Gore lost the election, and Bush became president. Diplomats are not elected, they’re appointed, and they have very different mission. Diplomacy can be asset or a liability for politicians.

  11. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/11/2016 - 06:03 am.


    If I had to choose one word to apply to both Clinton, it would be “disappointing”. As talented and brilliant as they are, neither one ever seems to quite meet or fulfill expectations. We know Hillary to be smart, but not smart enough such that she avoids doing dumb things. She is a Yale educated lawyer who way too often seems to need and lack good legal judgment. The well seasoned diplomat can be a bit of a gaffe machine. She is the politician working at the highest level who admits to being a lousy politician.

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