How Trump’s campaign language is breaking the political model

Trump Faces

Trump may stand at the head of the GOP class with his delegate count, but from a communications perspective, he’s hard to pin down.

Take the complexity of his language, for example. We looked at 20 of his recent speeches and interviews and found that he communicates, on average, at a 6th grade comprehension level — much lower than his fellow frontrunners from either party. The others (Cruz, Sanders and Clinton) fall right around the 9th grade, which general audience research suggests is the sweet spot for spoken communications.

But, for a certain audience, what Trump is doing seems to be working, and we wondered whether there were other anomalies like this in his language patterns.

Sure enough, further analysis found several ways Trump breaks the mold. Linguistically, that is.

Despite his bravado, Trump demonstrates 5% more anxiety than his fellow frontrunners.

Considering Trump’s reputation as a highly confident, self-assured speaker, we were surprised to find that his campaign language demonstrates more anxiety than that of his competitors.

This perceived anxiety is largely driven by his frequent use of tentative words that indicate he’s hedging or dodging the issue. This pattern is particularly evident in a November interview with George Stephanopoulos, who asked about Trump’s shifting stance on legalization of drugs:

“Well, I did and I — I — not think about it, I said it’s something that should be studied and maybe should continue to be studied. But it’s not something I’d be willing to do right now. I think it’s something that I’ve always said maybe it has to be looked at because we do such a poor job of policing.”

Of course, the same interview is also the source of this statement, which exhibits the hyper-declarative bluster Trump is known for:

“Well, I’m not looking to quagmire, I’m looking to take the oil. I want to take the oil. I want the oil.

Trump displays more negative sentiment than any other candidate, but he’s also the most positive.

Trump is constantly called out for his negativity on the campaign trail, and our analytics agree. His language throughout the race has been more negative than that of any of his competitors. However, we were surprised to find he has also displayed the highest level of positive sentiment.


Trump’s opening statement during the fifth GOP debate, back in December, demonstrated both highly positive and highly negative language. It may come as no surprise that the most positive segment of this statement was in reference to himself…

“And those things are things that I’m very good at and maybe that’s why I’m center stage. People saw it. People liked it. People respected it. A month ago things changed. Radical Islamic terrorism came into effect even more so than it has been in the past. People like what I say. People respect what I say.

…while the sharpest negativity referred to other politicians’ decisions:

“I certainly would never have made that horrible, disgusting, absolutely incompetent deal with Iran where they get $150 billion.”

Trump’s language is, on average, 110% more inclusive than the other candidates’. It’s also 60% more polarizing.

It’s uncanny, the way Trump manages to simultaneously embrace his constituents (us, we) and push away anyone who falls outside that category (they, them). Sometimes all at once, as in his campaign announcement last June:

Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.

When did we beat Japan at anything? They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn’t exist, folks. They beat us all the time.

When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically.”

In one breath, he creates a unified, inclusive “we,” full of people striving for protection, economic success, victories, and pits that “we” against the evil “they” who threaten those victories.


It’s not often that a speaker shows such huge variations in style, but there’s one thing we can say with certainty about Trump’s speech patterns: they’re consistently all over the place. However, for his particular audience, at least, they seem to be hitting their target.