Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it is safe to say, are very different candidates with very different speaking styles. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that when you analyze the contents of their speeches, some very different things pop out.
That’s what Cara Giaimo and Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura found, at least. They took a bunch of Trump and Clinton speeches from the last year and dumped them into a program that pulled out the most common words and phrases; then they asked some linguists what they thought of the results.
For both candidates, the top results are just normal, common phrases politicians use — “we’re going,” “we need to,” and so on. But when you look at the whole list, which is embedded in the Atlas Obscura article, some other stuff stands out.
The most interesting finding reported by Giaimo and Laskow was probably that “[l]inguists told us that while Clinton’s preferred words tend to be nouns that carry meaning, Trump’s speeches have been filled with grammatically necessary ‘words that don’t carry any information.’” Specifically, among both candidates’ most common words, “Clinton had all words that carried information: families, work, economy, together, American, women, workers, future, create, children. Trump had almost no words that carry information. Instead, the words that he was statistically more likely to use than Clinton were: going, are, they, I, you, it, they.”
Intuitively, this makes some sense given the speaking styles of the two candidates: Clinton is a lot more restrained and frankly substantive; Trump is more off-the-cuff and discursive, and doesn’t tend to go deep into policy.
For what it’s worth, one of Giaimo and Laskow’s sources was underwhelmed by the exercise:
When Dr. Peter Lawler, the Dana Professor of Government at Berry College, looks at these phrases, he doesn’t see much to compare. “It’s a sea of similarities,” he says. In statements like “we’re going to win,” and “make America great again,” he sees Trump emphasizing the country’s civic identity, while phrases like “break down all the barriers” and “no matter what zip code they live in” show Clinton underscoring diversity. If there’s a difference there, he says, “it’s kind of a branding difference.”
To him, these repeated phrases, as well as Melania’s plagiarism, say more about the electorate than the candidates. “There is a certain sense in which all political rhetoric, and all rhetoric generally, is above words now,” he says. “If we had minimal civic literacy, politicians, like great jazz artists, would sample things said by presidents and major works of literature and people would know it.” Instead, he says, “everything has been reduced to focus-group approved phrases.”
Well, maybe. But in the case of Trump, at least, it’s hard to argue that his speeches, which have consistently outraged and shocked a large percentage of the country, are tightly constructed and “focus tested.” Rather, he seems to be giving a pretty good glimpse of what’s in his heart. It could be the truth is somewhere in the middle: Political speeches contain a lot of pablum, but also at least a whiff of the speaker’s true self.