Rhetorical Convergence and Issue Knowledge in the 2000 Presidential Election

By Waldman, Paul; Jamieson, Kathleen Hall | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Rhetorical Convergence and Issue Knowledge in the 2000 Presidential Election


Waldman, Paul, Jamieson, Kathleen Hall, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Both of us use similar language to reach an exactly opposite outcome.

--Al Gore (presidential debate, October 17, 2000)

Citizens often say that all politicians sound the same. While occasionally used as an excuse for apathy, this complaint captures, at least in part, a critical characteristic of contemporary political discourse. This was seldom more true than in the presidential campaign of 2000. Although the candidates' actual policy positions differed substantially on dozens of issues, at times it seemed to many that they were making similar arguments, using similar terms to describe their policies, and in general converging toward a single set of goals. This convergence influenced what voters knew and thought about George W. Bush and Al Gore. It also represented a successful rhetorical strategy on Bush's part and a failure by the Gore campaign.

The subject of rhetorical ambiguity as a campaign strategy has been addressed before, with mixed results. While Downs (1957) argued that ambiguity was advantageous to candidates, a view supported by Page (1976), Shepsle (1972) attempted to demonstrate that theoretical conditions exist under which ambiguity results in fewer votes, a view supported by Alvarez (1998). Campbell (1983) showed that ambiguity is most effective when the candidate's position is at odds with majority opinion and when opinion is widely dispersed. Unsurprisingly, candidates have the greatest incentive to be ambiguous when specificity would alienate significant numbers of voters.

When candidates are vague, one must surmise their true positions. Often, voters simply "project" their own views onto their candidates of choice; instead of looking at their positions and deciding whom they like, they decide whom they like and then infer that the candidate's positions mirror their own. The stronger and more apparent a candidate's ideology, the less likely it is that voters will project their own views on to that candidate (Conover and Feldman 1989). Unlike some other information shortcuts, such as the use of party identification to infer issue positions, projection is not inherently likely to be accurate, although in practice the accuracy of projection is related to an individual's political sophistication (Krosnick 1990).

But ambiguity as explored by these scholars is not precisely the same as the rhetorical convergence that could be observed in the campaign of 2000. Bush and Gore did not simply decline to state where they stood or issue vague pronouncements potentially compatible with any policy position. Nor did they adopt a few selected positions associated with the other party to cloud perceptions of their general ideologies, a strategy Norpoth and Buchanan (1992) suggest may not be effective. Rather, they pledged support to a common set of ends--maintaining a strong military, providing prescription drug coverage, strengthening social security, and increasing accountability in education--but differed only on the means by which these ends could be achieved.

Nonetheless, the most common interpretation of the 2000 presidential election is not that of common issue positioning. Instead, the election is seen as one in which one candidate had an advantage on issues, while the other had an advantage on personality. Consequently, Bush's victory may be explained by, as The Baltimore Sun put it, "negative attitudes toward [Gore] personally, which seem to be negating his perceived advantage on issues" (West 2000, A1). Although there were many factors contributing to the election's final outcome, the premise of the explanation--that Al Gore had the advantage on issues--has not been challenged. In contrast, we will argue that Gore's "advantage" on issues was substantially mitigated by the public's lack of knowledge and misperception, to the point of being no advantage at all. First, many and in some cases most voters were not aware of where the candidates stood. Second, partly because Gore's positions were in fact more popular, when people made mistakes in attributing issue positions to the candidates, the results helped Bush and hurt Gore. …

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