Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Charismatic Rhetoric in the 2008 Presidential Campaign: Commonalities and Differences

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Charismatic Rhetoric in the 2008 Presidential Campaign: Commonalities and Differences

Article excerpt

The 2008 presidential election will no doubt be remembered as the one that saw the first African American elevated to the office of president; the then-junior U.S. senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Somewhat surprisingly, however, is that candidate Obama's oratorical abilities seemed to garner as much media attention as his race. As Slate's Jack Schafer (2008) noted with tongue in cheek, "Barack Obama bringeth rapture to his audience. They swoon and wobble, regardless of race, gender, or political affiliation." And, this oratory was often described as charismatic in the press:

When charismatic politicians such as Obama speak, they are able to turn a room full of strangers into a community rich in shared meaning, just as a great actor creates such a community within a theater. Whether such rock-star politicians talk about change or healthcare policy, they articulate a vision that those in the audience quickly make their own. (Bennis and Zelleke 2008)

While Obama's charismatic rhetoric seemed to rise above the other candidates running for office, he was certainly in high-quality company. During the battle for the primary election, Obama faced two Democratic leaders known for their rhetorical skills--Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. On the GOP side, Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister, had a stronger showing than would be expected, due in part to his charismatic language and appeal to voters, while Rudy Giuliani was considered a charismatic political figure since the events of 9/11. John McCain was known for being a maverick in words and deeds, while Mitt Romney looked the part, even if his rhetoric fell flat. Given the attention to oratory in the election and the long-standing debate about the use and effect of presidential rhetoric in scholarship on the presidency (e.g., Lim 2002; Rowland, Payne, and Payne 1984; Zarefsky 2004), analyses of the respective candidates' use of charismatic rhetoric is a fruitful area of inquiry.

To date, existing studies of rhetoric in presidential elections focus on either differences in the issues emphasized by the candidates (e.g., Burden and Sanberg 2003; Kaplan, Park, and Ridout 2006; Waldman and Jamieson 2003) or the values they espouse (e.g., Barker 2005; Doherty 2008). This makes sense given that studies have shown that voters in part base their voting decisions on which candidate they deem as more capable of handling issues salient to them (e.g., Benoit 2007; Petrocik 1996), as well as on values (Feldman 1988). However, a long line of scholarship also documents the importance of trait assessments to voting decisions at the presidential level (e.g., Campbell et al. 1960; Funk 1999; Miller, Wattenberg, and Malanchuk 1986), including assessments of leadership and charisma (Merolla and Zechmeister 2009). Yet, there has been surprisingly little systematic research on the use of charismatic rhetoric in presidential elections. To our knowledge, only one study (Bligh et al. 2010) has tried to understand the content of charismatic rhetoric in presidential campaigns, and that study only looked at Hillary Clinton's campaign rhetoric before and after the New Hampshire primary. (1)

This research is the first to systematically analyze the use of charismatic rhetoric in a presidential election campaign for all major candidates running in the primary and general election. We collected comprehensive samples of the candidates' speeches, interviews, and debate appearances, and then used DICTION 5.0 (Hart 2000), a content analysis program specifically designed for studying political discourse, to examine the use of charismatic speech in the 2008 presidential campaign. The sheer number of candidates running in both party primaries, and their diversity, makes this a particularly good case study to explore the types of rhetorical speech used by presidential candidates. (2) We are especially interested in identifying commonalities in their use of charismatic rhetoric, but also wanted to see whether there are systematic differences that can be traced to political context. …

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