Clinton Beats Trump on 11 Little Words Key to Convention Speeches
“I alone can fix it,” Donald Trump said on the final night of the Republican National Convention on July 21. “America's destiny is ours to choose,” Hillary Clinton rebutted in her own acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention July 28, “so let’s be stronger together.”
Judging from the past 40 years of presidential history, Clinton’s more “we”-focused speech puts her in the lead position to win in November.
A Bloomberg Politics study of convention speeches dating back to 1976, the first time both parties held nationwide primaries and caucuses, shows that the electorate ultimately favors those candidates who use more “we” words—we, us, our, ours, ourselves, and let’s—relative to “me” words—I, me, my, mine, and myself. In nine of 10 elections since 1976, the nominee who notched a higher “we”-per-“me”-word score in his convention speech went on to win the White House. The sole exception was 1988, when George H. W. Bush won the presidency despite delivering a more self-focused convention speech than his Democratic rival, Michael Dukakis.
With 202 “we” words and 141 “me” words in his speech last week, Trump set the mark for his opponent, with a 1.43 “we”-to-“me” ratio—about halfway between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 scores. Clinton and her speechwriters one-upped Trump with 242 “we” words and 136 “me” words, for a 1.78 ratio that was the best Democratic showing since her husband's 1996 acceptance speech.
A brief history of “we” and “me” in convention speeches
In Ronald Reagan’s speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, the “Great Communicator” used “we” at every opportunity—even the “royal we” at one point, as when discussing his experience on the campaign trail, where a “me” word would have sufficed—dropping a whopping 211 “we” words and just 34 “me” words during his speech.
Yes, the Gipper also uttered “make America great again,” a phrase that's made a strong comeback this year. More importantly, Reagan delivered a general-election message that ultimately won him 525 electoral votes and four more years in the White House.
That’s because “we” words inspire confidence in others. In one psychology experiment conducted by a team of university researchers from Texas, Memphis, and Seoul, South Korea, pairs of complete strangers held brief online conversations during which they had to complete a task together, then evaluated how much power they held in the interaction, relative to their partner. The people rated as more powerful by their partners after the conversation were also the people who used more “we” words and fewer “me” words. Another study found that patients perceive medical advice as less expert and trustworthy when it's handed out with more “me” words.
In addition to inspiring confidence in others, “we” words also reflect the speaker's own self-assurance and level of responsibility. In a study of cockpit communications, high-ranking members of the flight crew used more “we” words while lower-ranking crew members used more “me” words. The same pattern exists in e-mails among office workers of differing seniority.
A look back at the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York shows a visibly confident Jimmy Carter, whose acceptance speech was the culmination of his own Trump-like populist ascendancy over the Democratic establishment of the day. Carter closed his speech, as most modern candidates do, with a rousing agenda for America.
Four years later, Carter faced a weak economy and a divided party. This time around, he ended his speech with a very similar closing crescendo, with one big difference: Carter’s original “we can” gave way to “I want.”
Where he’d first allied with his audience—“We can have an America … We can have it, and we're going to have it!”—he now pleaded with them. “I still want the same thing that all of you want … I need for all of you to join me,” he beseeched the convention hall. Victory in 1976 gave way to defeat in 1980.
Finally, fast forward to 2008, when the “Yes We Can” campaign of then-Senator Barack Obama faced off against the “Country First” campaign of John McCain. When it came to convention time, Obama’s inclusive slogan heralded a flood of “we” words, in contrast to McCain’s more “me”-focused recitation of his long record.
Four years later, Obama would again beat his Republican rival in the convention-pronoun stakes—and at the polls on Election Day.
The 2016 scores
Clinton’s 1.78 “we”-per-“me” ratio builds on an existing lead she’s held against Trump in this metric, according to a comparison of the two nominees’ announcement speeches, debate performances, and June 7 primary victory speeches.
Tracking all the candidates in the 2016 primary debates actually shows that Clinton’s “we”-per-“me” victory over Trump carries an asterisk. While she narrowly bested Trump in the debates, together the eventual nominees scored dead last among all major 2016 presidential candidates in terms of how many “we” words they used for every “me” word. Combined, they referred to themselves 4,569 times and used the more inclusive “we” words only 2,840 times.
The disparity is partly due to a front-runner effect, in which Clinton and Trump faced more attacks, and therefore often had to defend themselves rather than focus on their platform. (The same effect explains why their closest challengers, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders, also rank near the bottom.)
But conventions are not like debates. There are no pesky moderators or hectoring rivals, only a podium, a prompter, and an audience of millions. Clinton and Trump ultimately overcame their earlier difficulty in getting to “we.” The remaining three months of campaigning will now decide who the American people believe is most on their side.
—Bloomberg contributor Adam Tiouririne of Logos Consulting Group advises senior business leaders on high-stakes communication and researches language, leadership, and the media.