Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

A Functional Analysis of American Vice Presidential Debates

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

A Functional Analysis of American Vice Presidential Debates

Article excerpt

Compared to presidential debates, vice presidential debates tend to receive short shrift. Of course, there have been far fewer of them. No vice presidential debates were held in 1960 or 1980; other years featured two or three presidential debates but only one encounter between the vice presidential candidates. Through 2004, we have seen 7 debates from running mates but 23 debates featuring the top of the ticket. Unfortunately, scholars tend to ignore debates between the running mates of the presidential candidates. Numerous books (e.g., Benoit & Wells, 1996; Benoit, McHale, Hansen, Pier, & McGurie, 2003; Bishop, Meadow, & Jackson-Beeck, 1978; Bitzer & Rueter, 1980; Carlin & McKinney, 1994; Coleman, 2000; Friedenberg, 1994, 1997; Hellweg, Pfau, & Brydon, 1992; Hinck, 1993; Jamieson & Birdsell, 1988; Kraus, 1962, 1977, 2000; Lanoue & Schrott, 1991; Schroeder, 2000; Swerdlow, 1984, 1987) and many articles (e.g., Benoit, Hansen, & Verser, 2003; Louden, 2005; Racine Group, 2002) have been published on presidential debates. In contrast, no books and a limited number of book chapters (e.g., Decker, 1994; Devlin, 1994; Ragsdale, 1997; Sauter, 1994; Trent, 1994) and articles (e.g., Beck, 1996; Carlin & Bicak, 1993; Clayman, 1995; Sullivan, 1989) have investigated vice presidential debates.

Is this neglect reasonable? In 1963, Vice President Lyndon Johnson became president after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. However, voters had not had an opportunity to see Johnson, or Henry Cabot Lodge (Richard Nixon's running mate), in a vice presidential debate. In 2004, Gwen Ifill noted, "Ten men and women have been nominees of their parties since 1976 to be vice president." She then asked Senator Edwards, "What qualifies you to be a heartbeat away?" Obviously, election years in which vice presidential debates occur offer voters an extended opportunity to learn about, and compare, the vice presidential candidates. Furthermore, voters can learn about the presidential candidates because the vice presidential candidates also discuss their running mates. In fact, in 2004, Gwen Ifill felt compelled to demand that the candidates answer at least one question without mentioning their running mates; Edwards could not manage to do so.

Furthermore, it is clear that voters see value in vice presidential debates. Focus group participants in 1992 indicated that these encounters "served to highlight the presidential candidate's decision making and provided insight into the abilities of the vice presidential candidate" (Kay & Borchers, 1994, p. 107). Tens of millions of viewers-an average of over 42 million-have watched the vice presidential debates. (1) Research shows that watching vice presidential debates can influence opinions (Payne, Golden, Marlier, & Ratzan, 1989; Wall, Golden, & James, 1988), voters' perceptions of the candidates (Holbrook, 1994), and their voting intentions (Holbrook, 1994). Finally, as Carlin and Bicak (1993) explain, "Regardless of whether or not the [vice presidential] debates have a significant influence on an election's outcome, they serve an important educational function" (p. 120). Clearly, vice presidential debates merit scholarly attention.

In order to illuminate these important campaign events further, this study analyzes the seven American vice presidential debates held through 2004. Results are compared with content analysis of the presidential debates held in the same years (Benoit et al., 2005; Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998; Benoit & Brazeal, 2002; Benoit & Wells, 1996; Wells, 1999). First, the functional theory of political campaign discourse, which provides the underpinnings for this study, will be discussed. Then specific hypotheses will be advanced. The method will be explained. This will be followed by presentation of results and a discussion of the implications of the findings.

FUNCTIONAL THEORY OF POLITICAL CAMPAIGN DISCOURSE

Carlin and Bicak (1993) identify five purposes of vice presidential debates: showing the nominees' fitness to serve as president, explaining their proposed role in administration, explaining policy positions, defending their running mate, and attacking the opponent. …

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