Hillary Clinton’s ‘Me’ Problem, Quantified (in 2 Graphs)

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There is a nagging suspicion that Hillary Clinton’s campaign suffers from narcissism. It’s the kind of suspicion that is hard to prove, but is nonetheless palpable every time the campaign releases a video.

Last weekend, Saturday Night Live aired a viral skit where a campaign aide coaches a hyper-narcissistic Clinton (played by the amazing Kate McKinnon) on how she should address her online audience, “You said this new campaign is not about you, it’s about the people, so let’s try one where you don’t say “I” or even your own name.”

SNL’s skit, was, it turns out, a subversively brilliant way to objectively measure whether the concern about Clinton is real or an artifact of an unfair stereotype.

To compare whether certain campaigns are excessively self-referential, I counted the number of “Me” v “We” pronouns in Clinton’s opening campaign video, Barack Obama’s announcement speech in 2007, and Senator Rand Paul’s announcement speech last week.

Across the board, Clinton does use a lot more “Me” terms (I, me, my, I’m) than “we” terms (we, our, us, we’re). In fact, in Clinton’s opening video, she didn’t use a single one.

In comparison, Obama, the progenitor of “Yes, we can”, had two-thirds “we” statements in his opening bid for president in ’07 and Paul had 45% “we” terms in his announcement last week.

Robustness Checks

For the sake of robustness, I also checked various other sources to see how common the pattern was. Indeed, campaign press releases also seem to reveal a strong Clinton-centric tone. In Clinton’s first campaign announcement issued last Sunday, the opening paragraph was

Hillary Clinton pledged to be a champion for everyday Americans and their families when she announced her plan to run a grassroots campaign for President of the United States today.

In contrast, historical archives of team Obama’s press releases reveal a distinctly different tone. One of the first public campaign statements issued by David Plouffe in 2007 doesn’t even mention the word “Obama” or reference the candidate with a pronoun (“he”).

From the beginning, we’ve urged you to think of this as your campaign; to contribute your ideas, energy and creativity to the mission of ending a war, challenging our broken politics and changing our course. We know the energy for such change will only come from the grassroots — from you — not from Washington.

Clinton’s campaign seems to have had this self-referential tone for some time. In 2007, her presidential announcement began with:

“I’m in. And I’m in to win.”

Again, for the sake of contrast, in ‘08, Obama opened his campaign announcement with “We all made this journey for a reason. It’s humbling, but in my heart I know you didn’t come here just for me.”

Is it narcissism?

While narcissism may play a part, I don’t think we can ignore that it might also be strategic. Everyone in Clinton’s opening video used “Me” statements, talking about their own struggles and hopes.

I think this is because Clinton understands her base. In 2008, a team of political psychologists found that one of the most predictive traits of citizens who supported Obama over Clinton was a belief in “moral idealism” over “moral relativism” [PDF].

Relativists are more individualistic: the good life is about letting everyone pursue their own version of the American dream. Idealists are more collectivist: it’s about citizens coming together to solve common problems in a way that benefits everyone.

Narcissism aside, I suspect this rhetoric is why I’m seeing lackluster enthusiasm for Clinton in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is very much an idealistic place. I’m not sure Clinton can inspire a legion of first-time activist engineers — in the same way Obama did — unless she starts speaking their language.

The Silicon Valley elite may open up their pocketbooks, but their workers won’t be inspired to volunteer the same level of innovative creativity. An absence of this creativity made a big difference in Clinton’s last bid for the presidency— and it could again.

*The Ferenstein Wire is a syndicated news service. Publishing partners may edit posts. For inquires, email the editor at greg ferenstein dot com.


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