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  • Writer's pictureManos Tsakiris

New study maps moral language on US presidential primary campaigns

New research by the Centre for the Politics of Feelings reveals how candidates in U.S. presidential primary elections use distinct moral rhetoric on social media to appeal to voters.


Figure. (A) Network displaying the moral-rhetorical community structure of the 2016 U.S. presidential primaries, based on a frequency analysis of 574 moral terms used by 17 Democratic and Republican candidates on Twitter. Candidates are connected to each other through their use of the same moral words. (B) Network displaying the moral-rhetorical community structure across both the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential primaries, based on a frequency analysis of 574 moral terms used by 34 Democratic and Republican candidates on Twitter. Candidate nodes are connected to each other through their use of the same moral words and colored by partisan affiliation


The study focused on five moral values — care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity — and examined how a candidate's use of words associated with these values connected or distinguished them from other candidates. The different moral language used was a clear indicator of a candidate’s political affiliation, with the results showing a stark difference between Democrat and Republican candidates.

Democratic and Republican candidates in both 2016 and 2020 primaries could be easily distinguished from one another – not just through their policy language, but also through the moral language they used to argue for the rightness or wrongness of those positions. The two parties emphasized different moral values, with Democrats emphasising caring and fair treatment of individuals and Republicans emphasising in-group loyalty and respect for social hierarchies. Moreover, within each party, candidates discussed popular moral values in highly similar ways. For instance, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar used a “care” vocabulary shared by nearly all of their Democratic peers.

The results also reveal the extent and manner of candidate deviations from party norms: for example, Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang deviated towards the Republican network position by using large amounts of conservative loyalty and sanctity language. Conversely, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, Democrats notable for their broad popularity during the primary, also used larger proportions of loyalty and sanctity language but did so in a way which allowed them to retain central network positions within the community of Democratic candidates. In other words, Buttigieg and Biden—even as they used opposing (and more broadly persuasive) moral frameworks—rhetorically insulated themselves amongst their peers by creating new vocabularies of “Democratic” loyalty and sanctity words.

Kobi Hackenburg, from the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, said: “Through the deliberate emphasis of certain moral values over others, competing candidates align or contrast themselves with their fellow party members. Our network-based methodology allows us to illustrate these intricate associations, revealing how moral language is associated with party dynamics, ideological shifts, and potentially even electoral outcomes.”

Professor Manos Tsakiris, Professor of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, said: "These patterns of moral expression reveal another dimension of polarization in the US. We illustrate a meaningful divergence in discourse between candidates and parties, and this has major implications for the ways voters engage with campaign messaging, respond to campaign issues, and form opinions about political candidates.”

As we approach the upcoming 2024 U.S. presidential primary season, this research provides fresh insight into the underlying significance of political messaging. When appealing to their respective bases, candidates employ distinct moral frameworks associated with their party affiliations. This consistent divergence in moral perspective has served as a defining characteristic in the electoral landscape of American presidential campaigns in both 2016 and 2020. With the Republican Party already embroiled in a primary battle, this study holds immense value in helping voters and political analysts understand the intricate moral and rhetorical dynamics shaping a fragmented and expansive national debate.

Publication Information:

Title: Mapping moral language on US presidential primary campaigns reveals rhetorical networks of political division and unity

Publication: PNAS Nexus

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