At this point in the Republican presidential primary race, Donald Trump’s intelligence is tough to dispute. The real estate magnate has managed to hack the electoral process so dramatically that it could break the modern-day GOP apart.

WIRED Opinion


Chelsea Coe is a graduate student in political science at the University of California, Merced, with background in cognitive linguistics.

How has he pulled it off? Among many strategies is his—shall we say—unique way of speaking. To his supporters, Trump’s style is refreshingly direct. They say they like that Trump doesn’t worry about political correctness or sounding “like a politician.” He recently defended the use of one of his favorite words at a South Carolina campaign rally, where he said, “I know words, I have the best words … but there is no better word than stupid.”

Such language has helped Trump accomplish the very un-stupid feat of connecting with a disgruntled electorate—and it is propelling him toward the nomination. From a linguistic point of view, it turns out, part of the trick is not to assume a high level of literacy. According to my analysis of language during the Republican debates, the language that Trump uses consistently registers at the fourth grade level. And it may be shifting the way his opponents speak, too.

Readability of Presidential Candidates During the Debate

Readability is just what it sounds like: How easy it is to read and understand text. There are multiple readability measures, but the Flesch-Kincaid grade-level formula is the one most commonly used. It takes input like words per sentence and syllables per word and spits out a number that corresponds to the grade level of a piece of text.

I gathered all of the debate transcripts from the current presidential election cycle and used the Flesch-Kincaid formula to determine the readability scores for each candidate at each event. (Trump sat out of the January 28 debate.) Cruz has the highest grade level, ranging from an almost 10th grade level to a seventh grade level. Kasich and Rubio fall a bit lower, between sixth and eighth grade reading levels. But Trump stands apart. No other candidate who spoke during the main Republican and Democratic debates had readability levels below sixth grade.

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A speech with a low grade level is marked by short sentences containing words with low syllable counts. This is exactly what Trump does. (Only two three-syllable words appear in a list of his 50 most frequently used words: Tremendous and president.) And that results in a strange byproduct: Trump usually utters the most, or second most, words in each debate. During the last two, in Houston and Detroit, he spat out almost twice as many words as everyone else.

Wondering what the Democrats look like in all of this? Well, not like much. During the (significantly fewer) Democratic debates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have hovered around an eighth grade reading level, and Clinton’s level has very gradually increased.

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But back to the Republicans. There’s a larger question embedded in these numbers: As other candidates witness Trump’s success, do they emulate his speaking style? The first debate and the most recent debate do show some differences, and while the grade level of Trump’s debate language remains significantly lower than the other candidates, it seems the gap is shrinking.

On average, Cruz and Rubio have decreased the grade level of their language over time. In particular, you can see Rubio’s plummeting after the January 28 debate in Iowa. Those switches could have happened by accident. Or they could have been an intentional attempt to attract more voters as campaigns progressed. But it’s most likely the case that their language has changed because the candidates have increasingly responded and challenged Trump head-on in the debates.

The candidates’ use of pronouns can illuminate their strategies, too. Singular pronouns like I, me, and my signal a sense of self-identity and an exclusionary component. Plural pronouns (we, us, our) show a sign of collective identity. Some research shows that people use the word “we” more in transcripts surrounding tragedies like 9/11.

Politician_Charts43.jpg Chelsea Coe/WIRED

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Across the debates, Kasich uses first person plural pronouns the most. In one debate, these inclusionary pronouns made up more than 6 percent of all the words he said: That’s a whopping 98 times. That mirrors the persona that he is trying to portray: the peacekeeper, the guy who’s going to be able to bring together the Republicans and Democrats.

The singular pronouns tell a different story. Trump, by far, uses these exclusionary pronouns the most. This ranges from 5 percent to over 7 percent of his speech being covered with singular pronouns. As the outsider, Trump needs to talk about himself and tell people who he is. Furthermore, he has no team or “we” to really talk about. He does not have constituents and has yet to release any names of his much anticipated foreign policy team.

Why does talking down work?

Now, let’s be clear: Just because Trump speaks at a fourth grade level most of the time does not mean that he’s dumb. People expect politicians to be intelligent, to know the facts, and to have opinions when it comes to policies and issues. But showing that you understand the issues also includes being able to explain them. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

And using simpler language is simply good strategy. Researchers have shown that processing information with ease (or processing fluency) induces a more positive experience. Unnecessarily complex language increases the cognitive effort you have to put into comprehending information, like a speech.

Even in situations where people expect language to be complex, they dislike overwrought language that’s difficult to interpret. For example, take Supreme Court decisions. When Dr. Thomas Hansford and I studied reactions to Supreme Court decisions, we found that people don’t dislike a decision when it includes lots of legal jargon—that’s expected. What they do dislike is when sentences are unnecessarily long, and easier words could have been used. In turn, they reflect that opinion in their negative reaction to the decision itself.

The same goes for policy stances. The simpler the position, the more likely you are to like it.

Politicians seem to have caught onto the idea. In the last decade, readability measures have dropped from an average of an 11th grade level in 2005 to where we are today with Trump’s fourth grade levels. Many of these speeches and debates are as much about signaling as they are about helping voters understand who you are as a candidate. When it comes to language, it seems that being understood may outweigh showing how smart you are.

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WIRED Opinion: The Way Trump Talks in Debates Is Contagious