Charismatic rhetoric in the 2008 presidential campaign: commonalities and differences.

Author:Schroedel, Jean
Position:Essay
 
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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. In particular, we are interested in the ways that candidates attempt to appeal to different constituency groups at different stages in the campaign. As Smith (2010, 225) noted, "The rhetorically sensitive campaign is attentive to multiple audiences and considers their messages accordingly." Accordingly, we expect to find differences in the elements of charismatic rhetoric used between Democrats and Republicans and between the primary and general election.

Presidential Rhetoric and Charisma

There is a rich literature in political science on presidential rhetoric. One important strand in this literature is a discussion of shifts in presidential rhetoric over time. Twentieth-century presidents are characterized as regularly attempting to go "over the heads" of Congress to appeal directly to the American people (Ceasar et al. 1981; Tulis 1988, 2006), while earlier presidents avoided policy specific appeals, perhaps out of deference to the Founders' proscription against demagoguery. (3) This is particularly interesting in light of Lim's (2002, 2008) research, which is the first to attempt a systematic quantitative analysis of the use of presidential rhetoric over time by using content analysis software to analyze inaugural addresses and annual messages delivered between 1789 and 2000. Lim finds support for the thesis that presidential rhetoric has shifted, with five notable shifts: an anti-intellectual trend, where reasoned argument is missing and largely replaced by sloganeering and pandering; an increase in the use of abstract lofty words; more democratic rhetoric, such as the use of we, us, and the collective; more assertive rhetoric, which reflects the president's more influential role over time; and, a more conversational rhetoric, which also is more reflective of an increased connection with the electorate.

Scholars have also looked at the use and effectiveness of rhetoric by particular presidents. For example, some have debated whether Reagan's rhetoric during the 1982 mid-term elections helped or hurt his party (Ingold and Windt 1984; Rowland, Payne, and Payne 1984). Rowland and colleagues make the important point that presidents are constrained in the rhetoric they are able to employ given the particular political context that they face. In the case of Reagan, they argue his rhetoric was very effective given the unemployment situation the country was facing. As another example, Holian (2004) explored how Clinton used rhetoric to gain an advantage on the crime issue, one traditionally owned by Republicans. Finally, Druckman and Holmes (2004) linked Bush's issue rhetoric in the 2002 State of the Union address to presidential approval among the electorate.

While the previous studies have all looked at sitting presidents, there is also scholarship on the use of rhetoric by presidential candidates during the campaign, and the effectiveness of that rhetoric. Much of the literature in this domain has looked at the use of issue rhetoric or, more specifically, which issues candidates choose to highlight (e.g., Burden and Sanberg 2003; Waldman and Jamieson 2003). For example, Burden and Sanberg (2003) do a systematic analysis of the use of budget rhetoric by presidential candidates over time. A few scholars have also looked at the use and effect of values rhetoric by presidential candidates (e.g., Barker 2005; Doherty 2008). For example, Doherty (2008) finds that Democratic candidates are more likely to use egalitarian rhetoric in nomination speeches, while Republicans are more likely to use limited government rhetoric. While the parties act as if they own certain values in their rhetoric, Doherty shows that candidates may benefit by adopting the rhetoric associated with the other party, with the exception of the use of egalitarian rhetoric among Republican candidates.

For all of the work on presidential rhetoric and rhetoric in presidential campaigns, notably absent is any scholarship in political science on the charismatic rhetoric used among presidents or presidential candidates, even though as early as the mid-twentieth century, political scientists (Davies 1954; Friedrich 1961) identified charisma as an important element in political leadership. In addition, almost every election cycle includes ubiquitous discussion among the media and various pundits of whether the candidates are more or less charismatic. The reluctance among political scientists to study charisma may be because they consider it to be an amorphous concept (Spinrad 1991). After all, the construct was developed from the path breaking work of Max Weber, who described charismatic leadership as a process by which followers ascribe "exceptional powers or qualities" to the leader (Weber 1947, 358). (4) How does one operationalize exceptional power or qualities as conveyed in speech or actions? (5)

Fortunately, researchers in social psychology and management have more recently sought to "demystify" charismatic leadership and have identified characteristics- confidence, goal orientation, inspirational, optimistic, caring etc.--that are positively associated with being charismatic (Behling and McFillen 1996; Bryman 1992; Conger and Kanugo 1988; Den Hartog and Verburg 1997; House and Howell 1992; House, Spangler, and Woycke 1991). It is important to note that the current research follows in the tradition of the latter scholars, who have attempted to deconstruct Weber's original treatment of charisma as a superhuman quality into a distinct leadership style. However, we note that this process of deconstruction may move the current examination of charisma away from Weber's original formulation into a relatively "tamer" version (see Beyer 1999 for more on this debate; see Geertz 1985 for a cultural perspective on charisma). Lindholm (1990, 6) similarly defined charisma as a "compulsive, inexplicable emotional tie linking a group of followers...

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