Moral foundations in the 2015-16 U.S. presidential primary debates: The positive and negative moral vocabulary of partisan elites

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Moral foundations theory (MFT) suggests that individuals on the political left draw upon moral intuitions relating primarily to care and fairness, whereas conservatives are more motivated than liberals by authority, ingroup, and purity concerns. The theory of conservatism as motivated social cognition (CMSC) suggests that conservatives are more attuned than liberals to threat and to negative stimuli. Because evidence for both accounts rests on studies of mass publics, however, it remains unclear whether political elites of the left and right exhibit these inclinations. Thus, this analysis uses the 2015-16 United States presidential primary season as an occasion to explore partisan differences in candidates' moral rhetoric. The analysis focuses on verbal responses to questions posed during party primary debates, a setting that is largely unscripted and thus potentially subject to intuitive influences. The Moral Foundations Dictionary is employed to analyze how frequently candidates used words representing various moral foundations, distinguishing between positive and negative references to each. ConsistentwithCMSC, the Republican candidatesweremore likely to use negative-valencemoral terminology, describing violations of moral foundations. The direction of some partisan differences contradicts the expectations ofMFT. Donald Trump, a novice candidate, was an exception to the typical Republican pattern, making markedly lower overall use of moral-foundations vocabulary.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number233
JournalSocial Sciences
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2019



  • Donald Trump
  • Ideology
  • Moral foundations theory
  • Motivated social cognition
  • Partisan differences
  • Presidential debates

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)

Cite this