Clinton's 'me' versus Sanders' 'us'

Story highlights

  • Clinton may be one of the most experienced presidential candidates in recent history, and yet a pitch based on that might be a drawback on a campaign
  • Sanders' experience is about the voters, what they all can do together

(CNN)Two speeches, two candidates and a markedly different focus when it comes to pronouns.

That's the conclusion reached when we analyzed the content of the speeches given by Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after their finishes in New Hampshire Tuesday night.
    Clinton may be one of the most experienced presidential candidates in recent history, and yet a pitch based on that might be a drawback on a campaign. She used the pronouns "I" or "me" in that speech 44 times. She used the words "we" or "us" less than half that amount -- 21 times.
    For Sanders, it was the exact opposite. Sanders used the words "I" or "me" 26 times. "We" or "us" was used more than twice as much -- 54 times.
    These moments were hardly comprehensive, but we looked at them in light of a criticism we'd been hearing about Clinton from Democrats. Clinton's pitch to voters is all about her, they said. Her experience. Her readiness.
    Sanders' experience is about them. What they all can do together.
    "It's a big problem," says former Obama adviser David Axelrod. "When you make experience your message, by definition, you're going to be talking about yourself more than you're going to be talking about others. It's a great contrast with Bernie, who rarely talks about himself. So his message is about something larger."
    "You look at winning campaigns and they have messages of empowerment -- they're inclusive," said Axelrod, a CNN contributor. "'Yes, we can' was a great example of that."
    Appearing on "The Lead" Friday, Neera Tanden, a longtime Clinton adviser who is now the president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, told CNN's Jake Tapper that although Clinton needs to be more inclusive in her speeches, the criticism is sexist.
    "I hear the point that this really needs to be a mission about what she's going to do as president. She has to work on making sure everyone feels part of that. And her language can shift a little bit on that point," Tanden said.
    "But I always get a little anxious about these kinds of comparisons because we ask questions about women, about what they're talking about themselves too much. ... All male candidates do that all the time," she added.
    On Monday, New Hampshire voter Donna Manion told National Public Radio, "I can, in my mind, think I'm pro-Hillary all the way, and then Bernie Sanders' ideas that he exposes me to really cause me to think in ways I hadn't thought before. I think in terms of 'us' a lot when I listen to Bernie talk. Whereas, when I listen to Hillary, even though I respect so much of what she has done and the person that she is, I hear the word 'I,' 'I,' 'I' a lot."
    Analyses of other speeches showed that Sanders did use "we" or "us" more than the first-person pronouns, while Clinton said "I" or "me" more than she used the more inclusive pronouns, though the ratio was less stark. The pattern did not repeat itself in debates or town halls, where the candidates had less control of their messages. We will be taking a more comprehensive look at these speeches in the future.