Clinton Won Last Night’s Debate, According to Communication Science

Headshots   Trump and Clinton

“Words matter when you run for president and they really matter when you are president.” – Hillary Clinton

Last night’s debate — the first official showdown between presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — was, as the GOP candidate would say, a huge event. Weeks prior to the debate, ABC news reported that 74 percent of Americans were expected to tune in. For context, only 40 percent of U.S. households watched Obama face off against Romney in 2012.

In the days leading up to the debate, pundits and pollsters posed wide-ranging predictions of how the candidates would perform onstage. The only certainty, it seemed, was that anything could happen.

However, there was a consensus among reporters that, in order to win the debate, each candidate would have to achieve a certain set of goals, showing voters a side we haven’t seen before. Trump would have to reign in his infamous bombastic nature and approach the debate coolly, rationally, and substantively. Clinton, on the other hand, would have to ease off her traditionally calculated approach and connect with her audience in an engaging, authentic manner she has yet to achieve.


In the hours following the debate, pundits and pollsters analyzed each candidate’s performance from countless angles, and we were right there with them. At Quantified Communications, we’re particularly interested in the language the candidates use throughout the campaign to position themselves as the best choice for president. We’ve been using our proprietary language analytics platform to track Clinton’s and Trump’s communication throughout the primaries, and in their acceptance speeches at their respective national conventions, and we couldn’t wait to find out which candidate’s language would help him or her achieve those critical goals during the first faceoff.

Despite Early Efforts, Clinton Lost Her Momentum in Creating a Human Connection

Clinton’s challenge last night was to engage her audience, and we measured success by looking for the emotionally charged, vivid language the candidate used to help her audience visualize the message and connect to it on a personal level.

The debate was divided into three sections, based on topics moderator Lester Holt had previously identified. In the first section, “Achieving Prosperity,” Clinton looked like she might be on that path to connecting with her audience.

In this first section, Clinton used 54.9 percent more engaging language than the average campaign communication in our database.

She opened with a nod to her granddaughter, and discussed her own background and her dad’s business, in a clear attempt to align herself with the middle-class families that were watching. She steamrolled her opponent’s initial attempts to interrupt her, and rebutted his claims with matter-of-fact statements, bringing her ideals to her audience with vivid, inclusive language, as in her remarks on climate change:

“Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. I think it’s real. I think science is real. And I think it’s important that we grip this and deal with it, both at home and abroad. And here’s what we can do.”

However, this trend would not last throughout the debate. Clinton grew increasingly measured as she discussed foreign affairs, and moved further away from her engaging start as the evening wore on.

By the third and final section of the debate, “Securing America,” she was using 15.9 percent less engaging language than she had at the beginning.


A 20% Increase in Emotional Language Cancelled out Trump’s Rational Start

Trump’s signature style is unbridled emotion. He has consistently demonstrated high levels of both positive and negative emotion, and just as much anxiety as bravado. His challenge last night was to soften that emotional language, refraining from his usual gusto in favor of a more presidential tone.

Like Clinton, he started strong.

Trump opened the debate with a subdued tone, offering rational commentary that, while it may have been short on facts, was also conspicuously short on his traditionally combative language.

However, as the debate went on, Trump’s composure gave way to the interruptions, distracting facial expressions, and audible sighs we’ve grown to expect from the GOP candidate. And his once-calculated language grew more and more unwieldy.


The levels of anxiety and extreme emotion (both positive and negative) Trump demonstrated climbed throughout the night — until the third section of the debate became a litany of all the wrong moves, disasters, and terrible problems our country is facing, punctuated by a rant against Rosie O’Donnell:

“Somebody who’s been very vicious to me, Rosie O’Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.”

And, of course, a reminder of what he’s set out to do:

“Look, here’s the story. I want to make America great again. I’m going to be able to do it. I don’t believe Hillary will.”

Despite Both Candidates’ Downward Slides, Clinton is Declared the Winner

Shortly after the debate’s end, Clinton was declared the winner by everyone from The Atlantic, to Fortune, to Fox. And her win is attributed in large part to her decision to keep her cool in the face of Trump’s attacks, sticking to coherent policies and platforms — with the occasional zinger thrown in for good measure, and to bait Trump. (He took it every time.)

Of course, Trump’s unpredictable nature and eccentric communication style have earned him the support of a large percentage of voters, and Clinton will certainly receive her share of backlash for failing once again to establish that warm human connection.

But if her struggle to connect left the audience feeling isolated, Clinton made up for it by instilling hope for the country’s future, demonstrating 34.8 percent more optimism than the GOP candidate.


While Trump painted a gloomy picture of the current state of our union, Clinton focused on the plans she’s made to ensure a bright future:

“If we can do this, and I intend to get it done, we will have 10 million more new jobs, because we will be making investments where we can grow the economy. […] That’s a lot of jobs; that’s a lot of new economic activity. So I’ve tried to be very specific about what we can and should do, and I am determined that we’re going to get the economy really moving again, building on the progress we’ve made over the last eight years, but never going back to what got us in trouble in the first place.”

And, with her parting message, Clinton put that bright future in voters’ hands:

“I support our democracy. And sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But I certainly will support the outcome of this election. And I know Donald’s trying very hard to plant doubts about it, but I hope the people out there understand: This election’s really up to you. It’s not about us so much as it is about you and your families and the kind of country and future you want. So I sure hope you will get out and vote as though your future depended on it, because I think it does.”

It’s too soon to tell whether either candidate’s efforts last night will affect their results at the polls, but our analytics revealed one thing for certain:

In the first debate, it was a win for substance over style.

The Democratic candidate achieved what her opponent did not: she behaved like a president on stage.

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This article was originally written for and posted on The Science of People.