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 Department of Communication
University of Missouri-Columbia
William Benoit
 political campaign discourse
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Functions of Political Campaign Discourse


Political campaign messages have three basic functions, each contributing to the superordinate function of accumulating sufficient votes to win the election. Elections (if contested) are inherently comparative: a voter chooses among two or more candidates, and the candidate who appears preferable (on whatever criteria are most important to each individual voter) will receive that person's vote. Accordingly, the rhetorical situation facing candidates for political office encourages them (1) to enhance their own credentials as a desirable office-holder (Acclaiming), (2) to downgrade their opponent's credentials as an undesirable office-holder (Attacking), and, if their opponents attack them, (3) to respond to those attacks (Defending).

Each of these three functions may occur on policy (issue) or character (image) grounds, or both. We have divided policy utterances into three subforms: past deeds, future plans, and general goals. We split character appeals into three subforms: personal qualities, leadership ability, and ideals. We have applied this approach to televised presidential spots from 1980-1996 , nominating convention keynote speeches (1960-96), nomination acceptance addresses (1960-96), to a variety of message forms in the 1996 primary and general campaigns, and to presidential tv spots 1952-1996 .


Acclaims on Policy. In 1988, a television spot for George Bush ("Bush Positive Economy") touted his past deeds: "Over the past six years, eighteen million jobs were created, interest rates were cut in half. Today, inflation is down, taxes are down, and the economy is strong.. Clearly, these are desirable accomplishments, and to the extent George Bush is thought to deserve credit for them, this acclaim will help boost his apparent desirability. Bob Dole's 1996 Acceptance Address explained that if elected, he "will reduce taxes 15% across-the-board for every taxpayer in America.. This is a specific future plan for tax relief, one that was attractive to many voters. In 1984, Katherine Ortega's Republican Keynote Speech described President Reagan's goals: "President Reagan is a candidate who can and will achieve peace without caving into Soviet threats. This acclaim does not describe or refer to a particular proposal, so it does not represent a future plan. Still, this goal, attributed to President Reagan, may help improve his apparent desirability. These claims, based on policy grounds, attempt to enhance the candidate's apparent preferability.

Acclaims on Character. In the "Oath of Office" ad in 1988, George Bush's leadership ability is praised: "Perhaps no one in this century is better prepared to be President of the United States" than George Bush. Bush's preparation, his experience in government, speaks to his leadership ability more than his character. In support of Lyndon Johnson, the 1964 Democratic Keynote Speech by John Pastore proclaimed the personal qualities of the Democratic nominee: "These months confirm the wisdom of our fallen leader, and the vision of President Kennedy lives on in the character, in the capability, and in the courage of the teammate of his choice. Here in particular courage and character are clearly personal qualities. In 1980, Reagan declared in his Acceptance Address that his party is "ready to build a new consensus with all those across the land who share the community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom. Family, work neighborhood, peace and freedom all represent ideals toward which he strives. These three examples of acclaims, based on character grounds, also attempt to increase the candidate's apparent preferability.


Attacks on Policy. In 1988, a Bush/Quayle spot ("The Dukakis Furlough Program") discussed Michael Dukakis's past deeds as Governor of Massachusetts: "As Governor, Michael Dukakis vetoed mandatory sentences for drug dealers. He vetoed the death penalty. His revolving door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first degree murderers not eligible for parole. While out, many committed other crimes like kidnaping and rape. These actions, attributed to Dukakis, would surely reduce the Governor's apparent preferability with many viewers. In 1996, Bill Clinton's Acceptance Address attacked Bob Dole's future plans , his proposed tax cut: "our opponents have put forward a very different plan, a risky $550 billion tax scheme that will force them to ask for even bigger cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment that they passed and I vetoed last year." Thomas Kean described the general goals of the Democratic party in his 1988 Republican keynote: "the liberal Democrats want to take money out of the pockets of working men and women because they think Washington can spend it better." Surely many viewers would consider these goals inappropriate, and reduce their assessment of Dukakis's preferability accordingly. These attacks, and based on policy grounds, are designed to reduce an opponent's preferability.

Attacks on Character. John Kennedy's 1960 Acceptance Address attacked his Republican opponent's personal qualities, explaining that the Republicans "will invoke the name of Abraham Lincoln on behalf of their candidate—despite the fact that his [Nixon's] political career has often seemed to show charity toward none and malice for all." In 1980, Ronald Reagan's Acceptance Address attacked the Carter Administration's (and the Democratic Congress's) leadership abilities when he declared that "The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal, and moral responsibility of the Democratic Party leadership—in the White House and in the Congress—for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us." Thomas Kean, in his 1988 Republican keynote, criticized the ideals of the Democratic Party, asserting that "Liberal Democrats believe that Washington should manage dreams for all Americans." Many in his audience would reject this ideal and lower their evaluation of Dukakis's suitability for the office of the president. These three attacks, all based on character grounds, attempt to reduce the preferability of an opponent.


The list of possible defensive strategies is available on another part of this Web site. However, two changes were made in the list of defensive strategies used in this analysis. First, one of the defensive methods for reducing offensiveness is attacking one's accuser. These utterances are now analyzed as attacks. Second, defensive utterances that would have been treated as bolstering or corrective action in the past now will be considered instances of acclaiming.

In 1960 Richard Nixon's Acceptance Address responded to the criticism that he was older than Kennedy and thus less well-suited to be president: "I think most people will agree with me tonight when I say that President de Gaulle, Prime Minister Macmillan, Chancellor Adenauer, are not young men. But we are indeed fortunate that we have their wisdom and their experience, and their courage on our side in the struggle for freedom today in the world." He uses simple denial to reject the claim that younger leadership is better leadership. In 1992, George Bush's Acceptance Address responded to accusations that he was focusing too much on foreign affairs, ignoring problems at home: "My opponents say I spend too much time on foreign policy, as if it didn't matter that schoolchildren once hid under their desks in drills to prepare for nuclear war. I saw the chance of rid our children's dreams of the nuclear nightmare, and I did." Here, Bush does not deny that he devoted more time to foreign than domestic affairs, but uses transcendence to justify his emphasis based on more important values (our children).

  last revised: August 6, 2004
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