Analytics say: Head-to-head with Rubio, Cruz’s language fails to build trust

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Last weekend’s political polls unveiled a surprise adjustment to GOP candidates’ standings: Ted Cruz’s favor among Republican voters has skyrocketed. CNN’s poll lists him in second place, with 22% support just short of Trump’s 27%. But he’s taken the lead in Iowa, with the Des Moines Register reporting Cruz is the favorite among 31% of voters, ten points ahead of Trump. Either way, the Texas senator has replaced Carson as Trump’s primary opposition, at least for now.

As the fifth GOP debate approached at the heels of this shakeup, we wondered whether Cruz’s language would support his new position as a top contender. So we used our proprietary language analytics platform to track Cruz’s language during Tuesday’s debate, as compared with previous performances, and find out whether his communication was as strong as his poll numbers.

Cruz’s optimism led the way, right away

The Texas senator was strong out of the gate as he delivered a clear opening statement that scored in the 99th percentile for optimism, outperforming fellow frontrunners Trump and Carson by an average of 12.9%. Cruz’s use of personal pronouns and active verbs helped audiences understand his vision for—and their role in—a victorious future for America.

“The men and women on this stage, every one of us, is better prepared to keep this nation safe than is Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. We need a president who understands the first obligation of the commander-in-chief is to keep America safe.”

Cruz’s success in the first few moments could have set the stage for a strong performance in Tuesday night’s debate but, as we’ve seen repeatedly, a GOP debate is nothing if not unpredictable. As the evening devolved into yet another political fistfight and Cruz went head-to-head with Florida Senator Marco Rubio, his leadership—at least, the way he communicated it—was far from certain.

In a series of clashes with Rubio, Cruz won out in confidence and persuasion…

As the debate progressed, we saw Rubio and Cruz butting heads time and again—so much so that Carly Fiorina had to step in at one point to steer them back on course. As the two senators’ arguments over policy grew more and more heated—and, arguably, less productive—we decided to pit their language against each other to see if we could determine a winner.

Our data shows that, throughout the debate, Cruz used 14.8% more confident language than Rubio (74.5% more than he used in his first debate appearance, and 49.2% more than in last month’s debate). When Rubio attacked Cruz for voting against the Defense Authorization Act, Cruz showed confidence in his rebuttal by using certain language and offering insight to defend his actions:

“Yes, it is true that I voted against the National Defense Authorization Act, because when I campaigned in Texas I told voters in Texas that I would oppose the federal government having the authority to detain U.S. citizens permanently with no due process. I have repeatedly supported an effort to take that out of that bill, and I honored that campaign commitment.”

Our research has shown that such confidence can be contagious. As Cruz’s confidence has increased, it’s likely the audience has begun to feel more certain of his strength as a candidate.

Cruz's confident language

Cruz also came across as more persuasive than his fellow Senator, using 60.7% more emotionally charged language, which our research shows helps audiences connect with and adopt a speaker’s message.

“In this instance, there are millions of peaceful Muslims across the world, in countries like India, where there is not the problems we are seeing in nations that are controlled — have territory controlled by Al Qaida or ISIS, and we should direct at the problem, focus on the problem, and defeat radical Islamic terrorism. It’s not a war on a faith; it’s a war on a political and theocratic ideology that seeks to murder us.”

…but when it came to earning voters’ trust, Rubio was the clear winner

The Texas senator’s confident, emotionally charged messages may have helped him win over voters, but Cruz’s debate language fell short of his opponent’s in one crucial area. While both candidates’ use of trustworthy language has decreased drastically since the first debate, Rubio came across as 2.9 times more trustworthy than Cruz. Rubio’s numbers were driven by his responses where he explained distinctions using words like “but” and “if.” Take for example these comments about working with other nations:

“The government in Saudi Arabia is not a democracy, but we will have to work with them. The government in Jordan is not perfect, but we will have to work with them. But anti-American dictators like Assad, who help Hezbollah, who helped get those IEDs into Iraq, if they go, I will not shed a tear.”

According to our research, Rubio’s willingness to highlight less-than-ideal situations may make more voters trust his message.

After last weekend’s polls revealed him as a new frontrunner, more American eyes (and ears) than before were on Cruz in Tuesday’s debate. Though his performance was strong in some ways, his failure to communicate in a trustworthy manner may hurt his chances of staying on top in the polls.

The GOP candidates have squared off for the last time in 2015, but they’ll be back next month for one more round before February’s Iowa caucus.

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