Academic journal article Communication Studies

A Gendered Influence in Campaign Debates? Analysis of Mixed-Gender United States Senate and Gubernatorial Debates

Academic journal article Communication Studies

A Gendered Influence in Campaign Debates? Analysis of Mixed-Gender United States Senate and Gubernatorial Debates

Article excerpt

Studies of campaign debates have become a valuable area of political communication research, providing greater understanding of candidate rhetorical strategies as well as effects from debate viewing. This research, however, has focused almost exclusively on presidential debates, ignoring the many campaign debates that occur regularly in political races at local, state, and national levels (McKinney & Carlin, 2004). Examination of non-presidential debates provides scholars an opportunity to pursue research questions not easily studied in the context of a presidential campaign. For example, below the presidential level female candidates are seeking--and being elected to--public office in greater numbers; and, these candidates engage frequently in campaign debates, most often with a male opponent. Beyond the few studies of the 1984 George H. W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro vice-presidential debate (e.g., Hardy-Short, 1986; Rosenberg & Elliot, 1987; Shields & MacDowell, 1987; Sullivan, 1989; Trent, 1994), almost no campaign debate research exists that incorporates candidate gender as a central variable of analysis.

The current study seeks to remedy the lack of attention paid to campaign debates at the non-presidential level, and, particularly, the lack of attention paid to debates between candidates running in mixed-gender races. Following a brief review of the relevant gender communication literature, and discussion of pertinent findings drawn from political advertising research, we advance the notion of debatestyle as a useful analytic scheme to examine the verbal content of female and male candidate debate dialogue. Finally, we analyze the debatestyles of female and male candidates in selected U.S. Senate and gubernatorial debates, finding that candidates engaged in mixed-gender debates exhibit a pattern of gendered adaptiveness in their debate dialogue.

Literature Review

Gendered Communication

The proposal to study specifically female and male communication in mixed-gender campaign debates inherently suggests an assumption that differences may exist in how the candidates present themselves in such a setting. That differences may exist in the verbal content of female and male debate dialogue is not in and of itself such a novel idea, based on a review of the available gender communication research. Considerable study has been devoted to the issue of gender differences in communication, seeking to find validity for prevailing gender stereotypes. Women's verbal communication, also referred to as "feminine language" (Bate & Bowker, 1997), is considered a way in which relationships can be established and maintained (Bate & Bowker, 1997; Tannen, 1990; Wood, 1994), promoting such feelings of understanding, equality, support, closeness, and inclusivity. Women's style is also personal, consisting of "details, personal disclosures, anecdotes, and concrete reasoning" (Wood, 1994, p. 142), and incorporates the use of hedges, tag questions, and adjective and adverb qualifiers (Bate & Bowker, 1997; Wood, 1994).

Men's verbal communication is considered a tool for establishing control and status (Tannen, 1990; Wood, 1994), including more assertions than questions and a focus on goals/tasks (Bate & Bowker, 1997; Wood, 1994). Men may interrupt to establish dominance, speak more abstractly, indicate little sympathy (Wood, 1994), and use non-standard speech for emphasis (Bate & Bowker, 1997), but will rarely use qualifiers (Bate & Bowker, 1997; Wood, 1994).

Campbell (1989) has advanced a model of rhetoric grounded in women's lived experiences. Developed through analysis of the rhetorical strategies employed by nineteenth-century female American rhetors, Campbell described the "feminine style" as rhetoric "that displays a personal tone, uses personal experiences, anecdotes and examples as evidence, exhibits inductive structure, emphasizes audience participation, and encourages identification between speaker and audience" (p. …

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