Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Toward a Theory of Vice Presidential Debate Purposes: An Analysis of the 1992 Vice Presidential Debate

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Toward a Theory of Vice Presidential Debate Purposes: An Analysis of the 1992 Vice Presidential Debate

Article excerpt

The United States' first vice president, John Adams, said of his role: "Today I am nothing. Tomorrow I may be everything." The office of vice president of the United States has been denigrated by many, including some who have held the position. Perhaps the most famous description was John Nance Garner's who said the office "wasn't worth a pitcher of warm spit."

Many political science scholars argue that a vice presidential nominee has limited impact on an election's outcome (Polsby & Wildavsky, 1988; Schlesinger, 1974), and focus group participants in a study of the 1992 presidential and vice presidential debates were split in their assessment of both the need for vice presidential debates and the impact the actual debate had on their ultimate choice for president (Carlin, 1992). Communication scholars, through their limited analysis of vice presidential debates, also contribute to the perception that the vice presidential nominee has little impact on the campaign and election.

While the importance of the choice of a running mate in terms of electoral outcome is uncertain and the power of the office is questionable based on historical precedent, organizers of general election presidential debates have included a vice presidential matchup in four of the six elections in which debates were held. At least one of those debates, the Robert Dole-Walter Mondale contest in 1976, was thought to have had an influence on the outcome of the election (Martel, 1983, p. 58) largely because of the contrast established between Dole and Mondale through their debate demeanor. Mondale, to many viewers, appeared more positive and presidential. Public opinion polls taken after the debate reflected an attitude that Mondale was more helpful to Carter than Dole was to Ford (Sauter, 1990, pp. 63-65).

In 1984, the vice presidential debate assumed a sense of importance because it highlighted the first woman candidate on a major party ticket. As Trent (1990) explained, "the spotlight on the debate had less to do with what they said and did than it had with the fact of their gender".

Two other debates, the Dan Quayle-Lloyd Bentsen debate in 1988 and the Quayle-Albert Gore-James Stockdale debate in 1992, arguably had a limited effect on their respective election's outcome. The Bush-Quayle ticket won in 1988 despite Quayle's inability to overcome all doubts about his readiness for either the presidency or vice presidency. However, some might make the argument that Lloyd Bentsen's superior performance actually hurt Dukakis because he appeared better prepared to be president than did Dukakis himself. James Stockdale's weak performance in 1992 did not prevent independent candidate Ross Perot from garnering 19 percent of the vote, the highest percentage for an independent candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.

Regardless of whether or not the debates have a significant influence on an election's outcome, they serve an important educational function just as presidential debates do. They help voters confirm their leanings and provide them with a better understanding of why they support a particular candidate.

It is our contention that vice presidential debates not only should occur but should be studied by communication scholars. A significant number of vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency either through a president's death or resignation or through a vice president's own successful campaign. Between 1944 and 1988 five vice presidents--Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George Bush--eventually occupied the oval office. The assassination of John Kennedy and attempts on Ford's and Reagan's lives underscored the fact that the vice president is a heartbeat away from the presidency. Thus, voters need an opportunity to learn about the person who occupies the second place on a ticket. This is especially true given the proclivity of many standard bearers to select little-known running mates. …

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