The Rationalist Papers (20): Analysis of the candidates’ words at the town halls

Donald Trump and Joe Biden participated in competing town hall broadcasts last week. I analyzed their speech. Trump talked about himself a lot more, but Biden talked about voters and what he would do for them.

Just a reminder: these Rationalist Papers posts are for the group I call the deciders: conservative, moderate, undecided, and third-party voters considering their choices in the 2020 US Presidential election.

Linguistic pronoun analysis of the town halls

Here’s the methodology for the counts you’re about to read. I reviewed the Rev transcripts of both town halls: Trump on NBC, and Biden on ABC.

For each candidate’s transcript, I retained only the speech of the candidate, removing words spoken by the moderator, the audience members asking questions, and the voiceover. I also removed artifacts of the transcript, such as time stamps and the tags identifying who was speaking. Finally, I removed the words “thank you,” since they’re not relevant for the pronoun analysis I wanted to perform.

The total number of words for Trump was 8655, and for Biden was 9472.

For each candidate, I counted the number of uses of the following words:

  • I, me, or my.
  • We, us, or our.
  • You or your.
  • Mentions of the other candidate (“Joe” or “Biden” or “Joe Biden” for Trump; “Trump” or “the president” for Biden.)

The results are shown below.

How candidates talk about themselves

Let’s start with I/me/my. You’re probably not surprised that Trump talks about himself a lot — in the case of the town halls, 42% more than Biden. In fact, one out of every 17 words that Trump uses is “I,” “me,” or “my.” Here are some typical examples:

But I do have to say this. And some people don’t like it when I say it, but a lot of people agree. I have done more for the African American community than any president. With the exception of Abraham Lincoln. Criminal justice reform, prison reform, historically Black colleges and universities. I got them funded.

[Regarding the Supreme Court] I would like to see a brilliant jurist, a brilliant person who has done this in great depth and has actually skirted this issue for a long time, make a decision. And that’s why I chose her. I think that she’s going to make a great decision. I did not tell her what decision to make. And I think it would be inappropriate to say right now, because I don’t want to do anything to influence her. I want her to get approved, and then I want her to go by the law. And I know she’s going to make a great decision for our country, along with the other two people I put there.

[Regarding his indebtedness] I will let you know who I owe, whatever small amount of money. I want to say two things. Number one, it’s a very small amount of money. Number two, it’s very straight. It’s very, very straight, but it’s a tiny percentage of the worth. Did you ever hear the expression underlevered? I am extremely underlevered.

Biden speaks less about himself (one out of every 29 words), but still takes credit for what he has done — which is appropriate, since he is not the incumbent.

I laid out a detailed plan relative to school openings in June and July. By that time, the science was becoming clearer and clearer of how this was spreading so rapidly. But the president kept denying that. If you notice, from March on, I stopped doing big meetings, I started wearing masks.

How candidates talk about us

When Trump says “we,” “us,” or “our” — which he does once every 37 words — he’s typically referring to the whole country, or to what his administration has done. Ask yourself if you feel included in his “we.”

We’ve created more jobs than this country has ever created. We were up to 160 million jobs. We were never even close to that number. We were just hitting 160 million jobs, companies are pouring into our nation because of the tax rate . . .

So we are going to take care of DACA. We’re going to take care of Dreamer. It’s working right now. We’re negotiating different aspects of immigration and immigration law. We’ve built now, over 400 miles of border wall, southern border. Mexico is working very closely with us. We have the strongest border we’ve ever had. We want people to come into our country. They have to come in legally. But we are working very hard on the DACA program.

We have the strongest economy in the world. We closed it up. We are coming around the corner. The vaccines are coming out soon, and our economy is strong. We are at a level with jobs like we’ve never been before. We’ve rebuilt our military. We’ve rebuilt our borders. We had no borders. We had no nothing. We’ve rebuilt so much. We’ve given you the greatest tax cut in the history of our country. Greatest regulation cut, equally as important. And we created new levels of jobs that nobody thought was possible.

When Biden refers to “we” or “us,” which he does once every 49 words, he’s typically talking about the whole country, or in some cases, his work with Obama.

We need more teachers in our schools to be able to open smaller pods. We need ventilation systems change. There’s a lot of things we know now, and I laid them out in some detail.

But we did lay out exactly what needed to be done. And take a look, we make up 4% of the world’s population. We have 20% of the world’s deaths. We’re in a situation where we have 210 plus thousand people dead. And what’s he doing? Nothing.

And by the way, if you take a look, we reduced the corporate tax rate from 35%. and Democrats, Republicans who were in office thought it should come down to 28%.

If you actually insist that whatever that product is, made in America, including the material that goes into the product. It is estimated we’re going to create somewhere between another four and six million jobs just by doing that.

How candidates talk about “you”

I was surprised to see that Trump says “you” with about the same frequency as Biden — once every 40 words or so — because my perception in watching the town halls was that Biden was the one talking directly to the voter. But the candidates do not use “you” the same way. For Trump, it’s mostly about arguing with the moderator. For Biden, it’s mostly about talking to the audience about what he’s going to do for them.

I don’t know where it [the virus] came from, and you don’t know where it came from, and the doctors don’t know where it came from.

And I think that maybe I wouldn’t be doing this discussion with you right now. We have therapies now and cures, maybe you can use the word cure, but we have therapies that are absolutely incredible, Savannah.

People are leaving New York by the thousands, and you’re going to have a hard time ever building it up again. So that cure, that so called cure that you talk about, it can’t be worse than the problem. The problem is a bad problem.

Oh, you always do this. [Ask about white supremacy.] No, you always do this. You’ve done this to me, and everybody. . . . .I denounce white supremacy. Okay? I’ve denounced white supremacy, for years, but you always do it. You always start off with the question. You didn’t ask Joe Biden, whether or not he denounces Antifa. . . . .So, are you ready? Are you… Wait. Are you listening? I denounce white supremacy.

Contrast this to how Biden uses “you” to relate to the audience.

Well, I’d say first of all, as my buddy John Lewis said, “It’s a sacred opportunity, the right to vote. You can make a difference.” If young Black women and men vote, you can determine the outcome of this election. Not a joke. You can do that. Then the next question is, am I worthy of your vote? Can I earn your vote?

Well, you can contain the pandemic by being rational and not crush economy. For example, I laid out a plan, how you can open businesses. You can open businesses and schools, if in fact you provide them the guidance that they need, as well as the money to be able to do it. What’s happening now is, we know, for example, if you can open a business and you could have a sign on the door saying, “Safe to come in.” And that’s why people aren’t going anyway, when they’re open. . . . And say, because you have social distancing, you have plastic barriers, when you go to the cashier, you have separators between the booths. You don’t have large crowds, you reduce the size, the number of people you can have in the restaurant. You make sure there’s testing, that’s a really critical piece that he didn’t do testing and tracing. And you make sure that people are equipped, going to schools.

When you allow people to get back in the game and have a job, everything moves. Everything moves. Right now, you got the opposite. You had, last year during this pandemic, you had the wealthiest billionaires in the world, in the nation, they made another $700 billion. $700 billion. He talks about a V-shape recovery. It’s a K shape recovery. If you’re on the top, you’re going to do very well. And if you’re in the bottom, or you’re in the middle or the bottom, your income is coming down. You’re not getting a raise.

In addition to that, if you’re a young man about to graduate and you graduated from school and you want to own your first home, well, it’s awful hard to get the money, depending on the background, where your economic background is, to get a down payments. So we’re going to guarantee first term home buyers a $15,000 down payment for first term home buyers.

How candidates talk about their opponents

Of course candidates say negative things about their opponents. And it’s no surprise that Biden talks about Trump three times as much as Trump does about Biden — that’s typical for an incumbent.

Here’s Trump on Biden:

[On the China travel ban related to COVID] Joe Biden was two months behind me, and he called me xenophobic and racist and everything else, because I put it in. And it turned out that I was 100% right.

if Biden comes in and raises taxes on everybody, including middle income taxes, which he wants to do, you will blow this thing, and you’ll end up with a depression, the likes of which you’ve never had.

And here’s Biden on Trump:

Well, first of all, going back, the fact is that the president was informed how dangerous this virus was.

By that time, the science was becoming clearer and clearer of how this was spreading so rapidly. But the president kept denying that.

The President fired the only Inspector General to see oversee all this help [Paycheck Protection Program] coming from the Congress.

President Trump talks about things that just aren’t accurate, about everything from vaccines, we’re going to have one right away, is it going to happen, and so on. The point is that, if the scientists, if the body of scientists say that this is what is ready to be done, and it’s been tested, they’ve gone through the three phases. Yes, I would take it. I’d encourage people to take it. But President Trump says things like, everything from this crazy stuff he’s walking away from now, inject bleach in your arm, and that’s going to work. I’m not being facetious, he’s actually said these things.

How candidates talk matters

At a base level, it’s not that surprising that Trump, the incumbent, talks more about what he did and Biden, the challenger, talks more about how Trump failed.

But the stylistic difference goes deeper than that. Biden is talking about what he can do for you, the voter. Trump is talking about himself, the economy (which is a mess), and how the virus could have been even worse.

Are these candidates listening to you? Can you tell from how they speak? As you decide who you’ll support, you may want ask yourself, who will support you?

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  1. The Washington Post has a long article about undecideds: “In a year of political anger, undecided voters inspire a special kind of scorn.” Alternately funny and caustic, it’s worth a read. If you’re blocked, try using your browser’s “reading view” (as it’s called in Firefox) or search for an available repost:

  2. This may be accurate but it is also very misleading. Trump was dealing with an argumentative, accusative ‘moderator’. Biden was dealing with a friend who tossed softball questions so he could look presidential. If they had been given the same questions with the same tone, your analysis would have some meaning, Right now, it is just BS by the supposed “Without BS” guy.

    1. Let’s just take you at face value for one moment, and ask what would have happened if the moderator hadn’t continued to ask Trump hard questions.

      Based on historical behavior, would he have still talked about himself over and over? Yes.

      Based on his historical behavior, would have have talked about what he could do for you, the voter? Not very much.

      I stand by my analysis.