In the week and a half since Clinton and Trump last went head to head, both candidates have become more deeply embroiled in their various scandals. Stories of Trump’s sexual misconduct and of Clinton’s cozy relationship with Wall Street drowned out any policy-oriented discussion the parties (and the voters) would have liked to hear.
And in the days leading up to the third and final 2016 debate, pundits were clear that if they wanted to make a difference, both candidates would have to set aside the personal attacks and focus on proving to the country that not only are their opponent’s sins worse than their own, but that they are truly a good fit for the oval office.
However, there appeared to be little hope that this final showdown would look any less like reality TV than the preceding debates.
As usual, the team at Quantified Communications was tuned in. We’ve been using our proprietary language analytics platform to track Clinton’s and Trump’s language throughout the campaign, and we couldn’t wait to see, based on our data, whether either candidate would emerge the winner.
A Positive Start Gave Way to Mid-Debate Meltdowns
When moderator Chris Wallace opened the debate with a question about Supreme Court appointments, both candidates gave even-keeled, measured responses, demonstrating fairly optimistic — or at least neutral — outlooks:
But any hope that this Las Vegas face-off would be the civil, substantive discussion we needed vanished quickly, with both candidates growing less and less positive as the debate veered further and further from policy and into a battle of insults, with Clinton calling Trump a “puppet” of Vladimir Putin, and Trump calling Clinton a “nasty woman.”
During this Low Point, Trump Made the Biggest Mistake of any Debate
When Wallace asked whether Trump would support the results of the election — as every other presidential candidate has done since time immemorial — the GOP candidate made what many have called “one of the most explosive charges of his candidacy.”
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said, to audible gasps in the debate hall at UNLV. “I will keep you in suspense.”
We believe this moment — and the hyper-negative anti-media tirades that followed — will overshadow the entire debate.
“What I've seen -- what I've seen is so bad. First of all, the media is so dishonest and so corrupt, and the pile-on is so amazing. The New York Times actually wrote an article about it, but they don't even care. It's so dishonest. And they've poisoned the mind of the voters.”
While both candidates managed to recover by the last few minutes of the evening, their negativity in the middle portion of the debate was enough to leave a bitter taste in shocked voters’ mouths.
He Said/She Said: Mudslinging Overshadowed Substance
Part of the challenge both Trump and Clinton faced last night was to focus on their own platforms instead of each other’s, telling us why they deserve our votes, and one of the simplest ways to measure their success in this area is to look at the pronouns they used. Again, both were off to a strong start, using first person pronouns to talk about their own messages and actions more than they used third person pronouns to refer to others.
However, as the discussion grew more and more personal, both candidates struggled to keep the focus on themselves. In the section on fitness to be president, Clinton used 1.6x as many third person pronouns as first person.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of Clinton’s third person pronouns referred to Trump as she lobbied one attack after another:
“At the last debate, we heard Donald talking about what he did to women. And after that, a number of women have come forward saying that's exactly what he did to them. Now, what was his response? Well, he held a number of big rallies where he said that he could not possibly have done those things to those women because they were not attractive enough for them to be assaulted. […] Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger.”
Clinton’s shift toward offense began in earnest at the end of the previous section, when she delivered a sharply aimed response to Trump’s insinuation that she’d accomplished nothing during her 30-year political career.
Setting up a decade-by-decade timeline, she contrasted her own accomplishments with Trump’s considerably less civic-minded or altruistic activities:
“You know, back in the 1970s, I worked for the Children's Defense Fund. And I was taking on discrimination against African-American kids in schools. He was getting sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination in his apartment buildings. In the 1980s, I was working to reform the schools in Arkansas. He was borrowing $14 million from his father to start his businesses. In the 1990s, I went to Beijing and I said women's rights are human rights. He insulted a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, called her an eating machine. And on the day when I was in the Situation Room, monitoring the raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice, he was hosting the Celebrity Apprentice.”
Trump certainly launched his share of attacks during these segments of the debate as well, but he seemed to turn his full focus toward Clinton once the discussion moved to foreign hotspots, blaming her for the problems rather than telling us how he would improve the situation:
“And a lot of this is because of Hillary Clinton, because what's happened is, by fighting Assad, who turned out to be a lot tougher than she thought, and now she's going to say, ‘Oh, he loves Assad,’ he's just much tougher and much smarter than her and Obama.”
While Clinton was able to refocus on her own message by the end of the debate, Trump continued his attacks through the very end of his closing statement:
“We cannot take four more years of Barack Obama, and that's what you get when you get her.”
In Closing Statements, Hillary Went High
After an ugly middle, Wallace surprised the candidates by asking them to end the debate on a positive note, with unprepared closing statements. While Trump continued to insult his opponent until the bitter end, Clinton regained her composure and delivered an eloquent closing statement in which she not only spoke positively and about her own plans, but she also spoke more persuasively than she had all evening — in fact, 1.2x more persuasively than Trump.
“We need your talents, your skills, your commitments, your energy, your ambition. You know, I've been privileged to see the presidency up close. And I know the awesome responsibility of protecting our country and the incredible opportunity of working to try to make life better for all of you.”
By using language that spoke to her own credibility, and her vision of ethics and responsibility for the future of the country — and by including her audience in that vision — Clinton delivered a closing statement designed to appeal to citizens who have yet to choose a candidate.
But was that final statement enough to inspire the votes she needs? Did Trump manage to persuade undecided viewers that he’s got the temperament for the job? At Quantified Communications, we won’t presume to predict the outcome of the election (we’ll leave that to Nate Silver), but you can bet we’ll be at the polls on November 8 — and we hope you will, too.
To find out how QC can use our communication analytics platform to help your leadership deliver best-in-class messaging, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.