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A functional analysis of the 1988 Bush-Dukakis presidential debates.

In 1960, Nixon and Kennedy inaugurated the practice of televised presidential debates in the general campaign (there were earlier primary debates; Davis, 1997). There followed a sixteen year hiatus in the custom of giving voters an opportunity to see the leading candidates for the highest office in the land, side-by-side, discussing the same topics, in a relatively spontaneous encounter. Beginning in 1976 with the Carter-Ford clashes, presidential debates have emerged as an expected component of presidential campaigns (Friedenberg, 1994).

Clearly, presidential debates merit scholarly attention. First, they offer voters a chance to observe the principal candidates together discussing the same issues (Benoit & Wells, 1996; Carlin, 1994; Hellweg, Pfau, & Brydon, 1992). Second, debates are unique in terms of message length: "As messages running an hour or longer, debates offer a level of contact with candidates clearly unmatched in spot ads and news segments" (Jamieson, 1987, p. 28). Debates offer a more candid view of the candidates because of their spontaneity (candidates cannot use a script). Debates also attract a larger audience (more potential influence) than other message forms:

Nielson (1993) reported that the second presidential debate in 1992 attracted 43.1 million television households or 69.9 million viewers.... Those numbers contrast sharply to the 4.1 million homes or 20.5 million viewers who tuned in for each of the major party conventions.... In 1980, nearly 81 million people watched Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in their only debate encounter... Miller and MacKuen (1979) noted that 90% of the adult population watched at least one of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, and 83% watched at least one Ford-Carter match up. These numbers compared favorably to 73% who read about the campaigns in the paper, 4% who read magazines, and 45% who listened to radio reports. (Carlin, 1994, pp. 6-7)

Furthermore, debates can increase voter knowledge (Benoit, Webber, & Berman, 1998; Lemert, 1993; Pfau, 1988). Hellweg, Pfau, and Brydon (1992) concluded that "debate viewing contributes to considerable learning about the candidates and their positions" (pp. 106-107). Some have suggested that debates do not affect election outcomes: Jamison and Birdsell (1988) asserted that "debates don't very often convert partisans on one side to the other" (p. 161). However, debates can influence elections by persuading undecided voters (Carlin, 1994; Pfau & Kang, 1991). Zakahi and Hacker (1995) described the slender margin in several elections:

In 1960, John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by about 100,000 popular votes. This is a fraction of a percentage (0.2%) of the total vote. In 1968, Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey by 500,000 votes (0.7%). In 1976, Jimmy Carter won by less than 2% of the popular vote. Polls in late September of 1976 showed an unusually large number of undecided voters (Reinhold, 1976). In 1980, Ronald Reagan beat Carter by less than 10% of the popular vote, yet two weeks before the election, 25% of the voters were still undecided. (p. 100)

Of course, 2000 was another extremely close contest. The number of voters who are neither Republicans nor Democrats has increased substantially: The proportion of independents has risen from 22.6% in 1952 to 38.0% in 1992 (Weisberg & Kimball, 1993). Neither political party enjoys a majority of citizens, so it is not possible to win the presidency without persuading millions of these voters. Additionally, the percentage of voters who belong to one party but vote for the candidate of the other party ranges from 14-27% (Nie, Verba, & Petrocik, 1999). Furthermore, there is clear evidence that debates have influenced voting behavior (Kelley, 1983; Kirk, 1995; Roper, 1960; Wayne, 1992). Thus, presidential debates clearly merit scholarly attention.

We focus on the 1988 presidential debate for this functional analysis of campaign discourse. This election was an important clash. Vice President Bush, along with Reagan, was part of a team that had won two terms in the White House--and Bush ran hard on the Reagan/Bush record. However, all factors did not point to a certain Republican victory. The last two sitting Vice Presidents who tried to move from number two to number one (Nixon in 1960 and Humphrey in 1968) had both lost. Furthermore, Bush faced Governor Dukakis, and the last two Governors to run for President had both won (Carter in 1976 and Reagan in 1980). Indeed, the next Governor to run, Clinton, would defeat Bush in 1992. Looking back at Bush's term in office, this election may well have had decisive effects on our country. For example, Dukakis may not have commanded Desert Storm in the same manner as Bush, and Dukakis might have bandied the economy differently from Bush. So, this clash deserves scholarly attention.

The 1988 debates in particular merit scholarly attention. Kane argued in 1987 that "The 1988 campaign, without an incumbent candidate, will be perceived as winnable by either candidate, and neither will risk failure to debate as an issue to be used by the opponent" (p. 249). After the debates, Drew and Weaver (1991) found that they had increased voter learning about the issues in the campaign. Pfau and Kang (1991), studying the first 1988 presidential debates, found that debates tend to reinforce attitudes for partisans, but they "exert significant influence on nonpartisan viewers" (p. 123), as suggested above. Given that neither party can control the outcome of a presidential election, the effects of the 1988 debates on nonpartisan viewers (and on party vote defectors) acquire particular significance. Hinck examined the effects of the two clashes between Bush and Dukakis on their standing in the polls:

At the time of the first debate, George Bush had a substantial lead over Michael Dukakis, but after the first debate, Dukakis closed to within a few percentage points of Bush. One reason for Dukakis' gain can be seen in the way that the first debate shaped doubts about Bush's ability to present his ideas in a manner consistently dear enough to suggest that he was satisfactorily qualified to assume office. The analysis of the debates also explains why Dukakis, having narrowed Bush's lead to a small margin, was unable to overcome Bush's lead in the polls during the final weeks of the campaign. In the second debate, Bush was able to project a more coherent vision of leadership and appear more personable than Dukakis. (1993, p. 151)

Holbrook also commented on the effects of the second debate of 1988, noting that "Bush's perceived performance was strong enough to increase his standing by almost 3 percentage points (1996, p. 108). He also noted the effects of Bush's strong performance in the second debate on supporters of Dukakis: "Dukakis supporters ... who thought Bush had won the debate were almost certain to change their candidate preference" (p. 119). Thus, the 1988 debates informed voters and affected viewers, justifying a closer analysis of this encounter. Holbrook even argues for effects of the 1988 debates on partisan viewers (Dukakis supporters who thought Bush won).

We employ the Functional Theory of Political Campaign Discourse (Benoit, 1999; Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998; Benoit, Wells, Pier, & Blaney, 1999) to analyze the 1988 debates. This approach has already been employed to study the 1960 (Benoit & Harthcock, 1999b), 1976, 1980, and 1984 (Wells, 2000), and the 1996 presidential debates (Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998). The 1992 presidential debates have been analyzed with a preliminary version of the functional theory (Benoit & Wells, 1996). First, we review the literature on the 1988 contest and describe our purpose and hypotheses. Then, we explain our method. Next, we report the results of this investigation and end by discussing the implications of this study for political campaign communication generally.


Researchers have examined various aspects of the 1988 debates, and the bulk of prior work falls into two main categories: voter response studies and rhetorical analyses. Several studies (e.g. Payne, Golden, Marlier, & Ratzan, 1989; Lanoue, 1991) examined responses from the general voting public. Clayman (1992) examined instances of disaffliation from the live audience response during the debates. Lemert, Elliott, Bernstein, Rosenberg, and Nestvold (1991) studied the influence of post-debate analysis on viewer perceptions of the candidates' performances in both debates. As mentioned above, Drew and Weaver (1991) found that the 1988 debates contributed to learning about the issues of the campaign. None of this work was designed to analyze the discourse of the debates.

Other research analyzed the debates rhetorically (Condit, 1989; Lucaites, 1989). Hinck (1993) elaborated the main problems encountered by each candidate--Bush's lack of coherence in the first debate, and Dukakis' passionless style in the second. Ryan (1990) outlined the major issues of the debates and evaluated the effectiveness of each candidate's handling of those issues.

Three studies examined the content of the 1988 debates. Calm, Howard, Stanfield, and Reynolds (1991) indicated that the candidates engaged in a roughly equal amount of clash (44% of the units coded). Statements of candidate self-praise were not specifically coded. Similarly, as their interest did not lie with the particular issues being discussed, they did not distinguish policy- and character-related statements. Hershey (1989) reported that Dukakis tended to stress domestic issues, while Bush emphasized foreign policy and defense. Additionally, Dukakis tended to mention symbolic ideas (such as family, leadership, and opportunity for the working class) more than Bush. This study is useful for understanding the content areas covered, but it does not analyze the functions of comments. Morello (1992) found that Dukakis had issued nearly twice as many attacks as Bush in debate one and more than twice as many in debate two. Bush's defenses outnumbered Dukakis' seventeen to seven. However, self-praise was not exami ned in this study, nor were the issues divided into character- and policy-related statements. Still, these studies suggest that the functional approach, with analysis of acclaims, attacks, and defenses, would find grist for analysis in these debates.


To shed more light on the 1988 debates, and to contribute to the functional analysis of presidential debates and campaign discourse generally, this study applies the Functional Theory of Political Campaign Discourse to the 1988 Bush-Dukakis presidential debates. We begin by sketching the theory guiding the analysis in this inquiry. Then we develop six hypotheses and a research question to focus our analysis of the 1988 debates.

Political campaign discourse, like presidential debates, is inherently functional or instrumental (as opposed to consummatory; see Benoit, 1999; Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998; Benoit, Pier, & Blaney, 1997; Benoit, Wells, Pier, & Blaney, 1999). Specifically, campaign rhetoric is a means utilized by a candidate to achieve a desired end: persuading enough citizens to vote for that candidate to win the election. Elections are inherently comparative: Each voter chooses among two or more candidates, voting for the candidate who appears preferable on the criteria that are important to each voter (see Downs, 1957; Nie, Verba, & Petrocik, 1999; Pomper, 1975). A candidate need not win every vote; nor must a candidate appear completely perfect. A candidate must simply appear preferable to other candidates for enough voters. Popkin (1994) explained that "each campaign tries hard to make its side look better and the other side worse" (p. 232). Accordingly, political campaign discourse has three essential functions: (1) acc laims, or remarks that enhance the candidate's qualifications as an office-holder (positive utterances), (2) attacks, or utterances that reduce the opponent's qualifications as an office-holder (negative utterances), and, (3) defenses, or comments that refute attacks (rebuttals). These three functions work as an informal form of cost-benefit analysis: Acclaims stress a candidate's benefits, attacks identify an opponent's costs, and defenses reject allegations of costs.

Of course, candidates are not required to use all three options in campaign discourse. Voters profess to dislike mudslinging (Merritt, 1984; Stewart, 1975) so candidates may decide to eschew attacks (although this means they forgo the opportunity to identify their opponents' weaknesses). Or, candidates may prefer to take the initiative (with acclaims and attacks) rather than respond to their opponents' attacks with defenses. However, regardless of how often candidates use each option, acclaims, attacks, and defenses are the basic functions of political campaign discourse, options that have the potential to persuade citizens to vote for a candidate.

Pamela Benoit (1997) defines acclaims, or self-praise, as utterances with two key components: "increased responsibility and the positive evaluation of an act" (p. 16). Television spots that perform this function are referred to as "positive" spots (see, e.g., Johnson-Cartee & Copeland, 1991). Acclaims can occur on policy or character topics. Previous research has analyzed persuasive attack (Benoit & Dorries, 1996; Benoit & Harthcock, 1999a; Fisher, 1970, on subversion; Ryan, 1982, on kategoria; see also Felknor, 1992; Pfau & Kenski, 1990; Jamieson, 1992). An attack attempts to portray an opponent in an unfavorable light. As with acclaims, attack can occur on both policy and character topics. Much research has investigated self-defense, apologia, accounts, or image repair discourse (see Benoit, 1995, for a review). Benoit (1995) developed a typology of image repair strategies. Because this approach is explicated in several places (e.g., Benoit, 1995, 1997; Benoit, Gullifor, & Panici, 1991; Kennedy & Benoit, 19 97), we will not repeat that discussion here. There are three differences between the list of defense strategies found in that work and used in this study: Bolstering and corrective action are considered acclaims and instances of attack accuser are considered attacks.

These three functions occur on two topics: policy (issues) and character (image or personality). Pomper (1975), for example, observed that many voters "change their partisan choice from one election to the next, and these changes are most closely related to their positions on the issues and their assessment of the abilities of the candidates" (p. 10), indicating that many votes are influenced by policy or character considerations. There are other ways to analyze the topics of campaign messages (e.g., policy could be divided into comments on foreign and domestic policy), but the functional approach holds that there are three key forms of policy and of character. Policy comments can concern past deeds, future plans, and general goals. Character utterances may address personal qualities, leadership ability, and ideals. The Appendix illustrates acclaims and attacks on each form of policy and character with excerpts from the second 1988 debate.

The functional theory of political campaign discourse can accommodate other approaches to understanding voting behavior. For example, consideration of past deeds permits analysis of campaign discourse related to retrospective voting: What have you done for me lately (Fiorina, 1979)? Future plans and general goals allow us to consider discourse concerning prospective voting (campaign promises) for voters who are oriented more toward the future than the past. Together, these three forms of policy utterances help understand the aspects of messages relevant to citizens who vote more on policy (issues) than character (image). The three forms of character comments (personal qualities, leadership ability, and ideals) can be employed to understand the aspects of messages that appeal to citizens who base their voting decisions on character more than policy. Partisanship as a grounds for voting appears in the guise of ideals and general goals. For instance, public opinion polls revealed that: "In general, Democrats are considered better at protecting Social Security, lowering unemployment, ensuring minority rights, and preserving the environment. Republicans are considered better at controlling inflation, maintaining a strong national defense, and fighting crime" (Popkin, 1994, p. 57). Thus, the functional theory of political campaign discourse highlights aspects of messages relevant to a variety of theories of voting behavior.

We propose to test six hypotheses. First, we will advance predictions about the functions of this discourse. Previous research on presidential debates (Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998; Benoit & Harthcock, 1999b; Benoit & Wells, 1996; Wells, 2000) revealed that acclaims were the most frequent function, followed by attacks and then by defenses.

H1. Acclaims are more frequent than attacks, which are more common than defenses.

The literature suggests that candidates representing the incumbent party are prone to acclaim more than their counterpart, while challenger party candidates attack more than incumbents (Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998; Benoit & Harthcock, 1999b; Benoit & Wells, 1996; Wells, 2000).

H2. Bush (the incumbent party candidate) acclaims and defends more than Dukakis (the challenger party candidate), while Dukakis attacks more than Bush.

The functional theory posits that utterances may occur on two broad topics. Past research has found that more utterances address policy than character (Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998; Benoit & Harthcock, 1999b; Benoit & Wells, 1996; Wells, 2000).

H3. Policy is a more common topic than character.

While other research divides topics into policy (issue) and character (image), only the functional theory divides policy utterances into three subforms (past deeds, future plans, general goals) and character into three sub-forms as well (personal qualities, leadership ability, ideals). Research on television spots in the 1996 campaign (Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998) revealed an imbalance in the acclaims and attacks produced by Clinton and Dole. Clinton acclaimed his past deeds and future plans, but Dole (apparently trying to distance himself from the Congress) acclaimed his future plans but rarely his past deeds. Clinton attacked both Dole's past deeds as a Senator and his future plans, whereas Dole attacked Clinton's past deeds but rarely his future plans. An analysis that stopped at the level of policy (issues) versus character (image) could not have revealed this imbalance. Thus, we offer three specific predictions concerning the forms of policy and character based on previous research (Benoit, Blaney, & Pi er, 1998; Benoit & Harthcock, 1999b; Benoit & Wells, 1996; Wells, 2000).

H4. Past deeds are used more by Bush (the incumbent party candidate) to acclaim and by Dukakis (the challenger party candidate) to attack.

H5. General goals are used more to acclaim than to attack.

H6. Ideals are used more to acclaim than to attack.

We also pose one research question:

RQ1. What strategies of defense do the candidates use?


This procedure has three steps. First, discourse was unitized into themes, or utterances that address a coherent idea. Berelson (1952) defined a theme as "an assertion about a subject" (p. 18). Similarly, Holsti (1969) stipulated that a theme is "a single assertion about some subject" (p. 116). Basically, a theme in this study is an argument ([argument.sub.1] see O'Keefe, 1977) about the candidates (or parties). Because rhetoric is enthymematic, themes vary in length from a phrase to several sentences. The themes' functions were classified (content analyzed) with these rules:

Acclaims portray the candidate or the candidate's party favorably.

Attacks portray the opposing candidate or opposing candidate's party unfavorably.

Defense explicitly respond to a prior attack on the candidate or the candidate's party.

While most utterances in these debates served one of these functions, other (nonfunctional) utterances were not analyzed. For example, a few statements pertain to current or past events without crediting the candidate or blaming the opponent.

Second, the topic of acclaims and attacks were classified according to these rules:

Policy remarks concern governmental action and problems amenable to such action.

Character remarks address properties, abilities, or attributes of the candidates (or parties).

Defenses were classified with the forms of image repair discourse. Third, policy themes are classified as past deeds, future plans, and general goals, while character themes are analyzed into personal qualities, leadership ability, and ideals (see the Appendix).

To illustrate this process, consider this statement by Dukakis from the second debate: "We have had the biggest drop in crime of any industrial state in America." The function of this theme is acclaiming, touting something positive about his administration in Massachusetts. This acclaim concerns crime, which is a policy topic (a problem amenable to government action). Because Dukakis is bragging about a past success, the form of policy is past deed. In the same debate, referring to Democratic attacks on his running mate Dan Quayle, Bush argued that "The American people ... don't like it when there's an unfair pounding and kind of hooting about people." This is an attack because it portrays the opposition in an unfavorable light. It relates to character rather than any governmental policy, and addresses personal qualities because it concerns the kind of people they are. In the second encounter, Dukakis attacked Bush for "this fiasco in Central America, a failed policy which has actually increased Cuban and Sov iet influence." Bush replied to this attack with a defense in his next comment: "And the policy in Central America, regrettably, has failed because the Congress has been unwilling to support those who have been fighting for freedom." This is an example of shifting blame because it argues that Congress, rather than Bush (and Reagan) are really to blame for the failure.

Two coders content-analyzed these debates. Both coders analyzed a subset of 10% of the sample to check for intercoder reliability. Cohen's kappa (1960) was .95 for coding themes as acclaims, attacks, and defenses; .75 for classifying themes as policy or character; .94 for classifying policy themes as past deeds, future plans, or general goals; 1.0 for coding character themes as personal qualities, leadership ability, or ideals. Fleiss (1981) indicates:

Values [of kappa] greater than .75 or so may be taken to represent excellent agreement beyond chance, values below .40 or so may be taken to represent poor agreement beyond chance, and values between .40 and .75 may be taken to represent fair to good agreement beyond chance. (p. 218)

Thus, these figures indicate excellent intercoder reliability in the coding of these debates, giving us confidence in our analysis of these texts.


We will present the results for each hypothesis in order (illustrating our results with excerpts from the first debate). The first hypothesis concerns the proportion of the three functions of political campaign discourse in these debates. As expected, acclaims were the most common function, followed by attacks, and defenses were least frequent. Acclaims accounted for 59% of the themes in the 1988 debates. For example, Dukakis boasted that he was a "chief executive [of Massachusetts] that's balanced ten budgets in a row." Bush turned to the future to discuss a proposal to help with the federal deficit: "I would like a balanced budget amendment." Both of these utterances are clear examples of acclaims, because they assume that balanced budgets are desirable to voters. See Table 1 for these data (we also include data concerning 1988 acceptance addresses and television spots for the discussion in this table).

Attacks were also common in the debates, comprising 33% of the utterances. The Democratic candidate attacked his counterpart, arguing that:

What he's proposing, after over a trillion [dollars] in new debt which has been added in the federal debt in the course of the past eight years, is a tax cut for the wealthiest one percent of the people in this country, an average of about $30,000 that we're going to give to people making $200,000 a year.

This passage managed to combine attacks on Bush's past deeds (as vice president) with attacks on his future plans. Bush combined a swipe at the clarity of Dukakis' discourse with an attack on his environmental policies: "That answer was about as clear as Boston Harbor." Thus, attacks were frequently used by both candidates in these debates.

Defenses accounted for 8% of their themes. When a question accused Bush of adopting inconsistent positions on abortions ("Over the years you have expressed several positions"), he replied that "my position has evolved. And it's continuing to evolve." This differentiates his changes ("evolution") from less desirable changes ("inconsistency"). In this defense, Dukakis rejected the claim that he was not patriotic using denial:

My parents came to this country as immigrants. They taught me that this was the greatest country in the world. I'm in public service because I love this country. I believe in it. And nobody's going to question my patriotism as the vice president has now repeatedly.

Although less common than attacks or acclaims, defenses were used repeatedly.

The second hypothesis compares the incumbent party candidate, Bush, with the challenger, Dukakis. As predicted, Bush devoted more of his remarks than Dukakis to acclaims (62%; 56%), while Dukakis used more attacks than his opponent (39% to 25%). Bush also had more defenses than Dukakis (12%; 5%). A chi- -square reveals that these differences are significant ([X.sup.2] [df = 2] = 28.8, p < .001). Thus, the incumbent acclaimed more than and defended more than the challenger, who attacked more than the incumbent.

Hypothesis three concerns the topic of their remarks. As expected, about twice as many themes (66%) were devoted to policy as to character (34%). For example, Bush explained his farm policy: "I support the farm bill, the 1985 farm bill and spending is moving in the right direction. I want to expand our markets abroad and that's why I've called for the first economic summit to be on agriculture." Dukakis stressed four of his general goals: "I want to help [the American] dream come true for every single citizen in this land, with a good job and good wages, with good schools in every part of this country... With decent and affordable housing ... With decent and affordable health care for all working families." Thus, both candidates discussed policy more than character in the debates. See Table 2 (which also includes data from acceptance addresses and television spots for the discussion).

Next we analyzed policy and character utterances into three subforms. The most common form of policy was general goals (50%), followed by past deeds (33%), and future plans (17%). For instance, Dukakis criticized Bush's general goals: "He seems to want to spend a great deal of money on just about every weapon system." In contrast, he acclaimed a specific plan to deal with illegal drugs: "I've outlined in great detail a program for being tough on enforcement at home and abroad, doubling the number of drug enforcement agents." The vice president boasted about the administration's accomplishments: "Housing is up. We are serving a million more families now." Thus, the candidates developed policy claims in a variety of ways. These data are displayed in Table 3 (which includes similar data for other presidential debates, for the discussion).

In character, discussion of personal qualities was most common (44%), followed by leadership ability (32%) and ideals (23%). For example, Dukakis accused Bush of inconsistency: "It was a very different George Bush who was talking much more sympathetically about the [nuclear weapons] freeze in the spring of 1982 than he is today." When discussing the federal deficit, Bush declared that "presidential leadership that I want to provide will bring it down." Bush indicated his ideals when he declared that "Most people know my position on the sanctity of life." Thus, the candidates employed all three forms of character utterances.

The fourth hypothesis concerns use of past deeds. As predicted, Bush, representing the incumbent party, used past deeds more in acclaims (65%) than in attacks (35%). In contrast, challenger Dukakis tended to employ past deeds more to attack (69%) than to acclaim (31%).

Hypothesis 5, on the use of general goals, was confirmed. Bush used general goals more often in acclaims (83%) than in attacks (17%), as did Dukakis (78% acclaims, 22% attacks). Hypothesis 6, concerning the use of ideals, was confirmed for Dukakis (88% acclaims, 12% attacks) but not for Bush (33% acclaims, 67% attacks).

The research question concerns the strategies used for defense. Most common were simple denial (21 instances) and transcendence (21 instances). Shift blame (7), differentiation and defeasibility (6 each), minimization and mortification (4 each), and accident (once) were also employed occasionally in the debates.


We found that acclaims were the most common function in the 1988 debates (59%), followed by attacks (33%) and then defenses (8%). This finding is significant because it challenges conventional wisdom that this campaign was mostly negative. Although not conducting a quantitative content analysis, Jamieson (1996), for example, noted that "the Bush campaign attack[ed] early and often" (p. 483). In these debates, Bush attacked in only one quarter of his utterances; Dukakis actually attacked more often than Bush, in almost 40% of his remarks. Even in their television spots, attacks accounted for less than 40% of their remarks. While there were attacks in 1988, this function did not predominate in the debate specifically or the campaign generally (only one-quarter of acceptance address utterances were attacks, and the most negative medium, television spots, was less that 40% attacks). In fact, these findings suggest that if voters wanted to avoid excessively negative campaign messages, the 1988 debates were good ch oices.

This same ordering of functions also occurred in 1960 (acclaims, 49%, attacks, 39%, defenses, 12%; Benoit & Harthcock, 1999b), 1992 (acclaims, 55%; attacks 32%; defense, 12%; Benoit & Wells, 1996 (1)), and 1996 (acclaims, 59%, attacks 33%, defenses 7%; Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998). Furthermore, this order can be found in other campaign messages forms (Acceptance Addresses from 1960 -1996: 72% acclaims, 27% attacks, and 1% defenses; Benoit, Wells, Pier, & Blaney, 1999; presidential television spots from 1952-1996: 60% acclaims, 39% attacks, and 1% defenses; Benoit, 1999). Thus, in the 1988 presidential debates, and in other message forms, acclaims outnumber attacks and defenses are the least common function.

This ordering of functions in campaign discourse makes sense. An acclaim make a candidate appear desirable, so candidates use them frequently. Attacks can hurt an opponent's desirability, but because voters profess to dislike mudslinging (Merritt, 1984; Stewart, 1975), candidates moderate their use of attacks. Defenses are infrequent for three reasons. First, they can take a candidate off-message to a topic that probably favors the opponent. Defenses may also make a candidate appear weak (on the defensive). Thirdly, if a voter hasn't heard an opponent's attack, defending against that attack will actually inform voters of a candidate's potential weakness. Thus, it is reasonable for acclaims to be most common in campaign rhetoric, followed by attacks and then, infrequently, by defenses.

Despite these similarities, there are some functional differences across medium. Table 1 reveals hat debates consistently had the most defenses (8%) of these three message forms. Surely it is easier to resist using defense in highly scripted television spots or Acceptance Addresses than in the heat of a debate. Furthermore, in a debate it is clear that the audience has heard the attack, so candidates don't have to worry that they are raising a potential weakness of which the audience was unaware. Second, Acceptance Addresses had a higher percentage of acclaims than any other discourse form (74%). Candidates may wish to appear generally positive in this nationally televised address (plus, they can count on the Keynote Speech to attack their opponents; Benoit, Blaney, & Pier [2000] found that Keynotes have more attacks than Acceptance Addresses). Third, television spots are the most negative of these campaign forms (38% attacks). Note that Benoit (1999) found that in 1988, 88% of the attacks in Bush's televisio n spots were uttered by persons other than the candidate (an anonymous announcer or an "ordinary citizen"), and 74% of the attacks in Dukakis's spots were made by others. This may have been an attempt to direct any backlash from attacks away from the candidates. In debates and acceptance addresses, of course, the candidate cannot use a surrogate to utter attacks, which means that we might expect debates in general to be less negative than other messages, like spots (as noted above, convention Keynote Speeches, a campaign message form not given by the candidates, were more negative than Acceptance Addresses). Thus, there are systematic and understandable differences in functions across political campaign messages.

Differences in presidential debates also arise from incumbency. In 1988, Bush, who represented the incumbent party, engaged in a higher percentage of acclaims and defenses, but fewer attacks, than Dukakis. Although he did not examine acclaims, Morello (1992) also found that Dukakis attacked more while Bush defended more. While Bush wasn't president in 1988, he was the sitting vice president and he ran hard on the Reagan-Bush record. Once again we find that these results are consistent with research on other debates. In 1960 (Benoit & Harthcock, 1999b), 1992 (Benoit & Wells, 1996), and 1996 (Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998), the incumbent party candidate employed more acclaims (and defenses) in presidential debates more than the challenger candidate, while the challenger engaged in more attacks than the incumbent.

Other political campaign message forms show the same basic pattern. In Acceptance Addresses (Benoit, Wells, Pier, & Blaney, 1999), incumbents acclaimed and defended more than challengers, while challengers attacked more than incumbents. Television spots (Benoit, 1999) also revealed that incumbents acclaim more than challengers, while challengers attack more than incumbents. Incumbents did not defend more than challengers in spots, but this may be due to the extreme infrequency of defenses in that medium (10/0).

These results also are readily explicable. The incumbent party has a record in the office sought, arguably the best evidence about performance in that office. This is a ready resource for incumbents to acclaim and for challengers to attack. It is true that, for example, Dukakis acclaimed his record as Governor, and Bush attacked it--but that evidence is not as relevant or cogent as White House experience. This could explain why incumbents acclaim more and challengers attack more. Previous research from the functional perspective has not compared incumbents' and challengers' use of past deeds. Closer inspection of Table 3 reveals that Bush, the incumbent party candidate, acclaimed more often than he attacked on past deeds (55; 30), whereas Dukakis, the challenger, attacked more than he acclaimed on past deeds (70; 32). Thus, the record of the incumbent party in the White House is an important inventional resource for incumbents and challengers alike. Furthermore, a greater number of attacks by challengers on i ncumbents means that incumbents have more opportunities, and motivation, to defend than challengers (see Benoit & Wells, 1996). This accounts for the fact that incumbents typically defend more than challengers.

Some scholars suggest that modem political campaign discourse lacks substance. Schutz (1995), for example, asserted that "Election campaigns, largely fought on television, ... tend to focus on the candidates' personalities rather than on political issues" (p. 212). That is demonstrably not the case in these debates: Almost twice as many comments (66%) were devoted to policy as to character (34%). Nor was this claim true in earlier years. In 1960 (Benoit & Harthcock, 1999b) and 1996 (Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998), policy accounted for 72% and character 28%, of comments. Policy also predominates in other campaign message forms: Acceptance Addresses (56% to 44%; Benoit, Wells, Pier, & Blaney, 1999) and television spots (60% to 40%, Benoit, 1999). Clearly, presidential campaign messages do not struggle primarily over personalities. In fact, presidential television spots since 1976 have show a steadily increasing focus on policy, and considering all spots from 1952-1996, 60% of the utterances concern policy rather than character (Benoit, 1999). Candidates may not go into great depth on policy questions, but such issues nevertheless constitute the bulk of their discourse. There is more substance to campaign messages than some may think. Furthermore, a USA Today poll in 1988 reported that 16% of respondents stated that a candidate's character was more important, while 59% said the candidates views on the issues was more important (1988; 23% said both were important). Thus, candidates may be responding to voter preferences by focusing more on policy than character.

The ordering of the specific forms of policy utterances are somewhat fluid. In the 1988 debates, the candidates allocated policy comments to general goals (50%), past deeds (33%), and future plans (17%). In 1960 (Benoit & Harthcock, 1999b), past deeds were most common form of policy utterance (50%), followed by general goals (30%) and future plans (20%). The 1996 debates (Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998) stressed past deeds much more often (72%), followed by future plans (17%) and general goals (11%). Acceptances (Benoit, Wells, Pier, & Blaney, 1999) stressed past deeds (46%), then goals (41%), and then future plans (13%). Television spots (Benoit, 1999) also stressed past deeds (58%) over general goals (25%) and future plans (16%). There is consistent emphasis on past deeds (which are concrete) and general goals over future plans (and as noted below, general goals are easier to use for attacks than future plans).

The forms of character are also fluid. Character comments in the 1988 debates focused most on personal qualities (44%), followed by leadership ability (32%) and ideals (23%). The 1960 debates (Benoit & Harthcock, 1999b) stressed ideals most often (48%), followed by leadership ability (39%) and personal qualities (13%). In the 1996 contest (Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998), personal qualities and ideals each accounted for 47% of character utterances, with leadership at only 5%. Acceptances (Benoit, Wells, Pier, & Blaney, 1999) stressed ideals (69%) over personal qualities (23%) or leadership (9%). Television spots (Benoit, 1999) emphasized personal qualities (49%), followed by leadership (34%) and ideals (17%). Thus, once again we see quite a bit of variation in the forms of character used in these messages.

As hinted above, general goals are used more for acclaims than attacks. It is easier to acclaim a more general policy (reducing the deficit) than a specific plan to implement that policy (increase taxes, close military bases, cut aid to education). This same logic makes it easier to acclaim than to attack ideals. Only George Bush violated this maxim, attacking more than he acclaimed on ideals (24 to 12).

In these debates, the candidates' defensive strategies tended to focus on simple denial and transcendence. Denial is a relatively simple defense--"I didn't do that "--and that can effective if accepted by the audience. When one cannot deny, transcendence--appealing to (allegedly) more important values or concerns--is a highly plausible response. These are reasonable choices for defensive strategies.


Thus study applied the functional theory of political campaign discourse to the 1988 presidential debates between Vice President George Bush and Governor Michael Dukakis. It reveals systematic regularities (acclaims were more common than attacks, which were in turn more frequent than defenses; policy was a more frequent topic than character) as well as differences (incumbents acclaimed more than challengers, who attacked more than incumbents; acclaims were more common in acceptances whereas defenses happened more often in debates) in campaign discourse. The functional theory of political campaign discourse provides insight into the function and nature of presidential campaign debates.

The functions enacted in political campaign discourse is a question of some import. As noted before, voters have indicated that they dislike mud-slinging (Merritt, 1984; Stewart, 1975), which means that attacks may backfire on candidates (although, as noted above, this does not necessarily prove that attacks never help the attacking candidate). Furthermore, Ansolabehere and Iyengar (1995; see also Ansolabehere, Iyengar, Simon, & Valentino, 1994) have argued that excessively negative campaigning may polarize the electorate and decrease voting turnout (but cf. Finkel & Geer, 1998). On the other hand, if candidates do not attack (or rely too much on acclaims), that may mean that voters remain unaware of opponents' shortcomings. These candidates focused more on acclaims than attacks--but the challenger attacked more than the incumbent

The use of defense in political campaign discourse is also a matter of import. Benoit and Wells (1996) point out that when a candidate chooses to defend against an opponent's attack, that candidate must abandon his or her grounds (issues), devoting time to topics that presumably favor the opponent (i.e., spending less time "on message"). Defending may also make candidates appear to be on the defensive, reacting to their opponents rather than initiating a dialogue. However, during the most recent presidential campaign, Michael Dukakis revealed that "he was glad President Clinton was responding quickly to attacks, something Mr. Dukakis said he failed to do in his 1988 campaign" (Clines, 1996, p. A12). Thus, it makes a difference which functions are used by presidential candidates in their campaign discourse.

The topic of campaign discourse is an important consideration. The functional theory of political campaign discourse argues that candidates may address policy or character in their utterances. Because the office of the president has policy responsibilities (proposing legislation, signing bills, administering the executive branch, and foreign policy), voters need to know the candidates' policy stances. In these debates, the candidates discussed policy much more (66%) than character (34%). However, we have to be able to trust candidates to try to enact their campaign promises. We also have to trust in their ability to make wise and acceptable decisions in response to issues that arise after the campaign (and, thus, on which no campaign promises were made). Thus, the character of the candidates matters as well, and these candidates devoted time to this topic as well.




Past Deed: Acclaim

Bush: "I'm proud to have been a part of an administration that has . . . enhanced the peace."

Past Deed: Attack

Bush: "He has raised taxes several times."

Future Plan: Acclaim

Dukakis: "We have . . . to double the number of drug enforcement agents."

Future Plan: Attack

Dukakis: Bush is "going to spend billions on MX's on railroad cars, which is a weapons system we don't need, and afford, and won't help our defense posture at all."

General Goal: Acclaim

Dukakis: "I'm not going to go to entitlements as a means for cutting that deficit."

General Goal: Attack

Dukakis: "He wants to spend billions on virtually every weapons system around."


Personal Quality: Acclaim

Dukakis: "I think I'm a little more lovable these days than I used to be back in my youth."

Personal Quality: Attack

Bush: "I'm not the one that compared the President of the United States rotting from--like a dead fish--from the head down."

Leadership Ability: Acclaim

Bush: "It's a question in foreign affairs in experience, knowing world leaders."

Leadership Ability: Attack

Dukakis: Leadership is "something we haven't had over the course of the past many years, even though the Vice President has been at least allegedly in charge of that war" on drugs.

Ideal: Acclaim

Dukakis: I desire "a future in which there is opportunity for all of our citizens."

Ideal: Attack

Bush: "At that Democratic convention, they made a determination and they said there, ideology doesn't matter, just competence."


Candidate  Message Form  Acclaims    Attacks   Defenses

            Debates      252 (62%)  102 (25%)  50 (12%)
Bush        Acceptance    79 (75%)   26 (25%)   1 (1%)
            TV Spots     121 (61%)   78 (39%)      0

            Debates      283 (56%)  196 (39%)  25 (5%)
Dukakis     Acceptance    53 (74%)   19 (26%)      0
            TV Spots     206 (61%)  125 (37%)   4 (1%)

            Debates      535 (59%)  298 (33%)  75 (8%)
Totals      Acceptance   132 (74%)   45 (25%)   1 (0.5%)
            TV Spots     327 (61%)  203 (38%)   4 (1%)

Note: TV Spot data from Benoit (1999); Acceptance data from Benoit,
Wells, Pier, and Blaney (1999).


Candidate     Form      Policy    Character

           Debates     242 (68%)  112 (32%)
Bush       Acceptance   54 (51%)   51 (49%)
           TV Spots    115 (58%)   84 (42%)

           Debates     319 (64%)  178 (36%)
Dukakis    Acceptance   43 (60%)   29 (40%)
           TV spots    209 (63%)  122 (37%)

Note: TV Spot data from Benoit (1999); Acceptance data from Benoit,
Wells, Pier, and Blaney (1999).


                        Policy                        Character
               Past     Future    General             Leadership
               Deeds    Plans      Goals    Personal  Qualities

Bush 1988      30/55 *   3/33     21/100     18/30       6/22
Incumbents    153/363   84/197    20/171     13/11       8/25
Dukakis 1988   70/32    22/37     34/124     47/33      22/44
Challengers   427/61    61/215    14/158     27/32      37/52


Bush 1988      24/12
Incumbents     10/113
Dukakis 1988    4/28
Challengers    27/79

* attacks/acclaims

Note: Incumbent, Challenger data from 1960: Benoit and Harthcock
(1999b); 1976, 1980, 1984: Wells (2000); 1996: Benoit, Blaney and Pier

(1.) Benoit and Wells, using an early version of this approach, did not analyze acclaims separately (nor did they categorize utterances into policy and character). However, the number of acclaims can be determined by combining bolstering and corrective action (and subtracting that figure from defenses), which is how these statistics were derived.


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William L. Benoit and LeAnn M. Brazeal *

* William L. Benoit (Ph.D. Wayne State University) is a Professor and LeAnn M Brazeal (M.A. Southwest Missouri State University) is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
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Title Annotation:Michael Dukakis; George Bush
Author:Benoit, William L.; Brazeal, LeAnn M.
Publication:Argumentation and Advocacy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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