A study led by an Ohio State professor in 2012 found that voters’ perceptions of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney went beyond their words on the campaign trail, and it is being applied to the 2016 election as well.
Researchers concluded that whether a candidate is perceived as being trustworthy and presidential depends on his or her language intensity and the kind of economic situation people feel like they themselves are in.
Language intensity is the extent to which word choices vary from neutrality, unrelated to inflection or volume.
“For example, when Donald Trump refers to Obamacare as a ‘disaster,’ that’s high-intensity language,” said David Clementson, the lead for this study and a doctoral candidate in the School of Communication. “Conversely, if Hillary Clinton were to refer to Obamacare as ‘in need of tweaks,’ or ‘an ongoing process,’ that would be low-intensity.”
Additionally, if someone perceives his or her economic situation as stable, that person will want a lower-intensity candidate.
“If people feel like they are in stable times, and the economy is good, then they want a presidential candidate to reflect that by using low-intensity language, therefore being more trustworthy and presidential,” Clementson said.
Similarly, if people feel they are in a bad economic situation, they are more likely to prefer inflated, high-intensity rhetoric.
Although the study was conducted in the weeks before the 2012 election, it appears in the September 2016 issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly. Clementson said the findings are relevant in 2016.
“During this election, which is fairly tumultuous, we are seeing various segments of the population responding very differently to the language intensity of the politicians,” Clementson said.
Nathaniel Swigger, an associate professor of political science, said Trump’s high-intensity language is useful for his candidacy.
“Trump is appealing to a group of people who are already angry and have a lot of resentment built in,” he said.
Swigger said the median income of a potential Trump voter is actually higher than most Americans, however that can be overruled if they live in economically depressed areas.
“They look around them and they are concerned about their communities, about ‘What are my kids going to do when they grow up? Are they going to have to move somewhere else?’” Swigger said. “That’s the anger he’s really speaking to.”
The study is based on language expectancy theory, in which people feel either favorable or adversely toward, or persuaded by, language intensity depending on their expectations.
“So you pick out this one guy — he’s been an international figure for 30 years and a star of a prime-time, major television show,” Clementson said. “So when he uses high-intensity language, he is fulfilling the expectations that most people probably have of a high-profile, international businessman who has been a mainstay in the media for decades.”
Swigger said the key differences between the two presidential candidates’ is rhetoric. Trump is “absolutist,” he said.
“You have a world divided between winners and losers. Trump talks about how he wants to make America win again — I don’t think that’s accidental,” he said. “There’s actually quite a lot of literature that suggests that Republicans respond much more favorably to black and white scenarios … and I think that’s what we see play out this election year.”
Clinton, on the other hand, has more nuance to her language, said Swigger.
“She obviously has had speeches and ads where she gets intense in her language, but it’s almost always much more complex,” he said. “Even if you just look at convention speeches side by side, the Trump language is much more simplistic. The Clinton language is both inclusive as well as more detailed.”
Clementson said that he never would have predicted just how intense the language would have been. Swigger agreed that this election’s was different than what he had seen before.
“Everything about this election is different from previous elections,” Swigger said. “If you look back at previous presidential candidates — even Mitt Romney, John McCain — in comparison to Trump, there is always more nuance there.”
As the election continues, Clementson predicts Trump “will keep saying the same sorts of things to keep voters who aren’t content with the current economic situation,” and “Clinton would probably continue raising her level of intense rhetoric.”