How did Donald Trump’s priorities change over the course of his 2016 presidential campaign? Did he get stronger on immigration as the campaign drew on? Or did he shift his focus to the economy? When did he start talking about Hillary’s emails?
These are all questions that data can help us answer. The American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara has a huge catalogue of transcripts from dozens political figures dating back several decades. Among these are 60 campaign speeches from Donald Trump, from the announcement of his candidacy on June 16, 2015 through his acceptance speech on November 9, 2016. They also have transcripts of the 11 Republican primary and 3 general election debates.
I’ve taken the liberty of scraping these transcripts and putting them in a semi-structured database that can be used for text analysis (GitHub repo). For the debates, I’ve done some light processing to include only the portions of the transcript attributed to Trump himself. I then set out to plot how Trump’s use of language evolved over the course of the campaign. To do this, I used fairly simple language analysis techniques to determine the frequency with which Trump referred to certain topics over time. I could plot just the number of times that Trump mentions certain words, but both the number and length of Trump’s speeches vary over time.
As expected, Trump started giving many more speeches in the last few months of the campaign. So rather than plotting raw word counts, I’m going to show you plots of how often Trump used certain words, as a proportion of all the words in my transcripts, aggregated at the monthly level.
We’ll start by looking at words related to some common policy-related themes from the 2016 campaign.
There doesn’t seem to be any discernible, time-varying trend in how often Trump mentioned economic topics in the campaign. However, when we turn to immigration, it appears there may be a slightly negative trend as the campaign wore on.
Terrorism was also a big topic in the 2016 campaign, with the horrific Pulse nightclub shooting occurring in early June 2016. Trump gave an address in New Hampshire the day after that event, in which he focused heavily on the topic of terrorism, exhibited by the large spike observed in the chart below.
We can also look at how often Trump mentioned certain people or entities throughout his campaign. We’ll start with mentions of “Obama”, by looking at the chart below. Trump gave a speech on foreign policy in April 2016, where he spent a lot of his time criticizing Barack Obama. Other than that, it seems there is a week upward trend in mentions of Obama over time.
I’ve also plotted how often Trump discussed the topics of “Russia” and “Putin” below. The first two spikes are from primary debates, in which the subject of Russia and foreign policy were discussed. We do also see a spike in mentions of Russia in September and October of 2016, near the time when Wikileaks released the Podesta emails.
Finally, let’s see how often Trump mentioned his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
As would be expected, Trump mentioned Hillary much more in the general election than the primary election (in which his main opponents would have been other Republicans). Trump clinched his party’s primary nomination on May 26th, 2016 and Hillary clinched the Democratic nomination on June 6th, 2016, which is consistent with the clear turning point in the trend observed above.
We can also zero-in on when (and at what intensity) Trump started discussing Hillary’s emails. In the chart below, we see a very stark and consistent upward trend from June through November. Trump referenced Hillary’s emails only one time before June, but consistently increased his focus on the topic of emails as the campaign wore on.
These are all interesting trends, particularly this last one given the dramatic increase in the intensity of focus on Hillary Clinton’s emails. While we usually can’t say for sure what caused one spike vs. another, going directly to the source material and applying some simple data analysis techniques allows us to gain some empirical insight into how Trump’s priorities appeared to have evolved in his campaign.