A functional analysis of 2012 U.S. presidential primary debates.

Author:Glantz, Mark

The president of the United States is the most powerful politician in the world. Therefore, the process of choosing a president is important both to the U.S. and the world. Since at least the 1870s, only candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties have been elected president. This situation confers great importance on the primary race for a major-party nomination. In 2012, President Barack Obama's nomination as the Democratic candidate was not contested, so only the Republican Party had a primary campaign. (Of course, Obama used the primary period to campaign for himself and against the Republicans generally.) The economy was seen by many as relatively weak in 2011, leading many Republican politicians to seek their party's nomination. As President Obama appeared vulnerable, many candidates vied for the chance to challenge the incumbent Democratic president. These candidates and their messages clearly deserve scholarly attention.

Since 1948, when Thomas E. Dewey and Harold Stassen participated in a debate on radio during the Oregon Republican primary campaign, presidential primary debates have been employed to help U.S. voters make a choice about who should be their party's nominee. In recent years, primary debates have been more numerous than debates in the general election campaign. In 2004 (the most recent campaign with a contested primary in only one political party), for instance, the campaign featured 21 primary, 3 presidential, and 1 vice presidential debates (Benoit et al., 2007). In 2008, 20 Democratic and 16 Republican primary debates were held (Benoit, Henson, & Sudbrock, 2011). Various studies have found that voters can be influenced by presidential primary debates (Benoit, McKinney, & Stephenson, 2002; Benoit & Stephenson, 2004; Lanoue & Schrott, 1989; Lemert, Elliot, Nestfold, & Rarick, 1983; Pfau, 1984, 1987, 1988; Wall, Golden, & James, 1988; Yawn, Ellsworth, Beatty, & Kahn, 1998). Meta-analysis has also established that watching televised presidential primary debates can increase issue knowledge, affect perceptions of candidate character, and change vote choice (Benoit, Hansen, & Verser, 2003); and these effects are even larger in primary than general debates, probably because voters have less knowledge, fewer candidate character perceptions, and weaker commitment to vote choice early in the campaign. Although the average viewership for primary debates is far less than that of general election debates, many voters do watch primary debates. For example, in 2008, 24 of the Democratic and Republican primary debates attracted a total of 90 million viewers (Kurtz, 2008; Memmott & Carnia, 2007; Page, 2008). Balz (2012) argued that the Republican primary debates of 2012 made a difference: The debates "shaped the campaign and the fortunes of many of the candidates. Think Rick Perry" (para.1). There is no question that presidential primary debates merit scholarly attention.


Relatively few studies have used content analysis to examine 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 employing Functional Theory offers several 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 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%). When candidates discussed character in primary debates, they discussed ideals (45%) and personal qualities (36%) more than leadership ability (19%). Benoit et al. (2007) reported similar patterns in the 2004 Democratic primary debates where candidates employed acclaims (63%) more than attacks (32%) or defenses (4%). About three fourths of their statements concerned policy (and the remainder character). One contrasting finding was that these Democratic candidates were more likely to direct attacks toward Republican President Bush (65%) than to one another (21%) or the establishment generally (15%). Also, Benoit et al. (2011) analyzed presidential primary debates in the 2008 election. Acclaims were again the most common function (68%), followed by attacks (26%) and defenses (6%). These candidates discussed policy more than character (70% to 30%). We extend this line of analysis in the current study, employing Functional Theory to analyze primary debates from Republicans in the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign.


The Functional Theory of Political Campaign Discourse was developed by Benoit and his associates through a series of studies (see, e.g., Benoit, 1999, 2007; Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998; Benoit & Brazeal, 2002; Benoit & Harthcock, 1999; Benoit, Pier et al., 2002, Benoit, Stein et al., 2007). Functional Theory posits that citizens vote for the candidate who appears preferable on the criteria that are considered most important to each voter (Benoit, 2007). Candidates can demonstrate their desirability in three ways. First, the candidate can engage in acclaiming or self-praise. The greater the benefits or advantages of one candidate, the more likely that person will appear preferable to voters, compared with opponents. Second, candidates can attack or criticize opponents; and as voters become aware of more costs or disadvantages of opponents, those competitors should appear less desirable to voters (of course, it is possible that the source of these attacks can experience a backlash from voters who dislike mudslinging). Finally, candidates who have been the target of attack can defend against (refute) those attacks. The fewer and smaller the costs or disadvantages, the more likely that a candidate will appear preferable to opponents. These three options can be seen as roughly similar to cost-benefit analysis, providing information that can help persuade the voter to prefer one candidate over others (yet we do not claim that voters systematically quantify the impact of acclaims, attacks, or defenses or perform mathematical calculations to decide their vote choice; acclaims may increase one's benefits, attacks are capable of increasing an opponent's costs, and defenses may reduce one's costs). For example...

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