Examining Verbal Style in Presidential Campaign Spots

By Ballotti, John; Kaid, Lynda Lee | Communication Studies, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Examining Verbal Style in Presidential Campaign Spots


Ballotti, John, Kaid, Lynda Lee, Communication Studies


In a presidential campaign, political television spots constitute the candidates' most visible and direct means of influencing voters. As a candidate attempts to persuade and motivate the American public to accept that his/her vision is the best one for the country, presidential candidates now expend more than half of their campaign budgets on the production and purchase of political spots. In the 1996 campaign, for instance, Devlin (1997) concluded that Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and their respective national parties spent nearly $200 million on political spots. Candidates devote a great deal of their budget and resources to campaign spots, and it seems likely that this reliance on political advertising is an indication that a candidate intends these messages to suggest his/her "verbal style," displaying the motivations and underlying qualities that constitute the character of the person seeking the highest office in the land. This study seeks to analyze the components of the verbal style displayed in political spots and to compare the use by different candidates across time.

Verbal Style in Presidential Discourse

The first person to attempt a systematic analysis of the verbal style of presidential discourse was Hart (1977, 1984, 1987). Analyzing hundreds of presidential speeches delivered by Presidents from Harry Truman through the first two years of Ronald Reagan's first term, Hart identified activity, certainty, optimism, and realism as verbal variables present in presidential speeches. Using computerized content analysis of the words used by presidents in their speeches, Hart was able to develop and extract characteristic verbal styles for each president.

Hart argued that these four overall variables represented the most important role characteristics by which presidents are judged. Activity, for instance, is a measure of the "motivation, change or the implementation of ideas" (Hart, 1984, p. 16) and demonstrates how a president uses power. Activity in presidential discourse is represented by words of action and accomplishment; its opposite by words of mental, rather than behavioral, endeavor or by words related to thinking or passivity. The concept of optimism relates to "endorsing someone or something, offering positive descriptions, or predicting favorable occurrences" (Hart, 1984, p. 16). Optimism is displayed by words that offer praise, inspiration, positive outlooks; its opposite by words of despair or conflict. Certainty is a quality indicating "resoluteness, inflexibility, and completeness" (Hart, 1984, p. 16). Words of inclusivity and decisiveness are representative of certainty, while its opposite is represented by words that qualify or indicate lack of certainty (verbs like "might" or adverbs like "maybe" or "almost"). Finally, realism refers to "tangible, immediate, and practical issues" (Hart, 1984, p. 16) and is displayed in presidential discourse by present tense verbs, by words of concreteness. The opposite of realism is indicated by past tense verbs and complicated structures and words.

In this work and later work on campaign discourse, Hart (2000) makes a strong case that a presidential candidate's choice of words has great meaning. What a candidate chooses to say or not to say and how it is said conveys a great deal about the candidate's vision for America and how the candidate positions himself/herself within the American cultural and economic landscape. Thus, political spots are a part of the "conversation" of the campaign.

The patterns in presidential discourse identified by Hart through his computerized content analysis system, using the DICTION program developed for this purpose, made it possible to relate a president's verbal style to the times and happenings of each president's term in office and to compare each president to other presidents and to the discourse patterns of other speakers.

However, Hart's analysis was restricted to the analysis of sitting presidents (and other speeches he used as comparisons to establish baseline standards).

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