Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Issue Ownership Trends and Tensions in 2008: Obama, the Transformative Democrat?

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Issue Ownership Trends and Tensions in 2008: Obama, the Transformative Democrat?

Article excerpt

The 2008 election was like no other presidential election in American history. The Republican Party nominated a woman, Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin, as its vice presidential nominee and the Democrats nominated Senator Barack Obama, the first Black man to run on a major party ticket and win the presidential nomination. News channels devoted more resources than ever to the spectacle of the campaign, giving attention to everything from candidates' sense of fashion, to race, gender, and even the issues. This study works to get past the pundits and the overall media representations to better understand where the candidates stood on the issues. Thus, the purpose of this study is to know what issues the candidates were mentioning and if the candidates were engaging issues that were important to the people. It seeks to answer this question using content analysis of nomination acceptance speeches and presidential debates to compare the frequency with which candidates mention specific issues with the public's perceived issue ownership as depicted in polling data. We will review issue ownership theory and past research that has explored this theory followed by a presentation the data from the 2008 general election presidential debates and nomination acceptance speeches.

ISSUE OWNERSHIP THEORY

The theory of issue ownership, as it applies to presidential campaigns, was initially developed by Petrocik's (1996) content analysis of the 1980 election and has been tested in a variety of locations, such as campaign advertisements and media reports (Benoit & Hansen, 2002; Benoit & Stein, 2005; Benoit, 2004, 2007; Damore, 2004; Hayes, 2008; Petrocik, Benoit, & Hansen, 2003; Petrocik, 1996), primary debates (Benoit & Hansen, 2002, 2004a; Benoit, 2004), nomination acceptance speeches (Benoit, 2004; Petrocik et al., 2003), and general election debates (Benoit & Hansen, 2002, 2004b; Benoit, 2004). This study continues issue ownership scholarship through its application to the nomination acceptance speeches and general debates in the 2008 presidential election, thereby extending the conversation into a new time frame and political context but maintaining the textual stage set by past research.

Issue ownership theory posits that Democrats and Republicans "own" certain issues (Petrocik, 1996). According to this theory, voters perceive that the two main political parties have a certain set of issues that they handle well (Benoit & Hansen, 2004a). The issue sets are based on the strength of handling certain issues over time, is reinforced by politician ideology, and is relatively stable (Benoit & Hansen, 2004a). As an election strategy, this theory states that candidates emphasize their owned strengths and make the argument that handling those issues will be better suited to resolve the problems within the current political environment (Petrocik, 1996). One goal of issue ownership as a strategy is to set the issue agenda for citizens and the media so that it favors the candidate's owned issues (Petrocik et al., 2003). It should be noted that, in a strategic context, issue ownership is helpful at arguing for swing voters and also for targeting the base of each particular party, because candidates talk about the issues that they and their party are deemed better at handling (Petrocik, 1996). Petrocik (1996) asserts that Democrats are perceived as owning and resolving the environment and social welfare issues best, such as: health care, education, poverty, and the elderly. On the other hand, the public perceives Republicans as owning foreign policy, defense, the economy, and issues related to government spending, inflation, and taxation (Petrocik, 1996).

Petrocik's (1996) case study of the 1980 election shows that candidates and political parties own certain issues and that ownership of issues is built on reputation over time. This dedication to certain issues has further developed the public's perception of each party's, and by association each candidate's, competency in handling particular issues. …

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