A Functional Analysis of 2008 U.S. Presidential Primary Debates

Article excerpt

Presidential primary debates have been employed to help inform voters in the United States since 1948, when Dewey and Stassen participated in a debate on radio during the Oregon Republican primary campaign. In recent years, primary debates have been much more common than debates in the general election campaign. In 2004, for instance, there were 21 primary, three presidential, and one vice presidential debates in the campaign (Benoit et al., 2007). Various studies have found that voters can be influenced by watching presidential primary debates (Benoit, McKinney, & Stephenson, 2002; Benoit & Stephenson, 2004; Lemert, Elliot, Nesvoldet, & Rarick, 1987; Pfau, 1984, 1987, 1988; Wall, Golden, & James, 1988; Yawn, Ellsworth, Beatty, & Kahn, 1998). Meta-analysis has established that primary debates can increase issue knowledge, affect perceptions of candidate character, and change vote choice (Benoit, Hansen, & Verser, 2003); these effects are even larger in primary than general debates, probably because voters have less knowledge, fewer character perceptions, and weaker commitment to vote choice earlier than later in the campaign. Data from the 2008 campaign indicates that 24 of the Democratic and Republican primary debates attracted 90 million viewers (Kurtz, 2008; Memmott & Carnia, 2007; Page, 2008). Clearly, presidential primary debates merit scholarly attention.

The 2008 U.S. presidential campaign is particularly noteworthy for two reasons. First, 2008 was the only open campaign in recent memory. Not since 1952, when General Dwight Eisenhower faced Governor Adlai Stevenson, had a U.S. presidential campaign not included either a sitting president or vice president. However, in 2008, President George W. Bush was completing his second and final term and Vice President Dick Cheney decided not to run for the top slot. Although some recent campaigns have seen challenges to renomination of the incumbent (e.g., in 1992 Pat Buchanan contested President George H. W. Bush for the Republican nomination and in 2000 Bill Bradley ran against Vice President A1 Gore for the Democratic nomination), the lack of an incumbent makes both primary races competitive and in all likelihood makes campaign messages even more important for voters who have less information about the candidates compared to typical election campaigns.

Furthermore, although the primary campaign commenced earlier than ever before, the Democratic nominee was not decided until much later than usual, with Senator Barack Obama wresting the nomination away from Senator Hillary Clinton in June. This is the first rime a nominee for one of the two major U.S. political parties was not a white male. When Senator John McCain selected Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, it assured that for the first rime in U.S. history the elected President or Vice President would not be a white male. Thus, the debates that led up to this historic election merit scholarly attention.


Relatively few studies have content analyzed U.S. presidential primary debates (for other kinds of research on this message form, see Berquist, 1960; Best & Hubbard, 2000; Blankenship, Fine, & Davis, 1983; Hellweg & Phillips, 1981; Kane, 1987; Ray, 1961; Stelzner, 1971). A study of U.S. presidential primary debates from 1948-2000 offers some insights into the content of these messages (Benoit, Pier, et al., 2002). Acclaims were the most common function of these primary debates (63%), followed by attacks (32%) and defenses (4%). When presidential candidates did attack in primary debates, they were more likely to attack members of their own political party (47%) than candidates in the opposing party (30%) or to attack the status quo (criticisms that include members of both major political parties, 24%). The candidates in primary debates discussed policy (63%) more frequently than character (37%). More of these policy utterances concerned general goals (40%) or past deeds (37%) than future plans (24%). …


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