Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republicans? Politeness theory in the 2012 Republican primary debates.

Author:Hinck, Shelly S.

The campaign for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination involved 27 "debate events" from May 2011 until March 2012. These debates drew large audiences--more than 3 times the size of the audience for the primary debates during the 2008 presidential campaign--and according to the Washington Times, viewership was more than 8 times the average primary debate audience for the nationally televised debates broadcast by CNN. Michael Shear (2011) of the New York Times Politics and Government blog wrote that each debate "seems to have more influence over the course of the campaign than the last one" (p. 1). To understand how the debates preceding various state primaries may have affected the political fortunes of the candidates in the primary campaign, we examined the content of nine debates held before the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, and Arizona state primaries.

Examining the debates in these pivotal state campaigns gives us a glimpse into the dynamics of the race to win the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. The candidates featured in these events were Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, John Huntsman, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum. Of this group, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum held the greatest hope of gaining support for their nomination. Santorum won the Iowa primary, leaving Romney a very close second; Romney regained momentum after his Iowa setback, but Gingrich surged later after a strong performance in the South Carolina debates. Clearly, the debates played a major role in shaping the outcome of the nomination in the 2012 campaign.

A substantial number of studies have found that primary debates make a difference in campaigns. Pfau (1988) found that intra-party political debates produced significant learning about the general campaign issues including issue learning that was specific for each of the three major candidates in the debate studied. Research has also found that primary debates affect voting intentions in several ways. Benoit, McKinney, and Stephenson (2002) found that viewers of primary debates "learn about the candidates' policy positions, form or change their evaluations of the candidates' character, change vote choice, and increase confidence in their vote choice" (p. 329). Benoit and Stephenson (2004) found that two thirds of their sample of viewers of a primary debate changed voting intentions and expressed greater confidence in their voting intentions.

Primary debates differ from general election presidential debates in important ways. Benoit and Stephenson (2004) have argued that primary debates feature messages directed to the base rather than a national community, exchanged between members of the same party rather than an opposing party, and focused on regional audiences and concerns rather than national issues. Depending on the campaign, primary debates can function as turning points for different camps as potential candidates assess the field and sometimes decide to toss their hat in the ring, changing the dynamics of the campaign. McKinney, Kaid, and Robertson (2001) have found that front-runners often become the target of attacks in primary debates as lesser contenders try to assert their candidacy at the expense of the current leader in the polls.

The nature of the arguments in primary debates merits consideration. Some political debate scholars believe that the content of primary debates often focuses less on differences in policy positions because the candidates are drawn from the same party. Yawn, Ellsworth, Beatty, and Kahn (1998), for example, have argued that "ideological and issue differences among candidates are of a lower magnitude in primaries than in general election campaigns" (p. 156). Drawing on the research of Gopoian (1982); Often (1985); and Hellweg, Pfau, and Brydon (1992), Yawn et al. (1998) have argued that "the absence of party labels leads voters to abandon the standard criterion and forces them to rely on short-term influences--often candidate image--when making vote decisions" (p. 156).

How the candidates use language to shape these images seems to be a central question in how primary debates might account for who ultimately gains the nomination. In previous work, we have argued that a candidate's political image can be thought of in terms of social face (Hinck & Hinck, 2002). Building upon the work of Goffman (1967) and Brown and Levinson (1987), we have argued that candidates place their social standing at stake when they take the stage for a debate and that differences in wealth, class, or prestige recede in importance as social cues for determining leadership because the democratic practice of debating brings the consideration of argumentative discourse to the forefront of the deliberative process. In primary debates, candidates stand before their audiences as potential leaders of their party and attempt to demonstrate that they not only understand the values of their party but are advocates worthy of defending their party's principles. Also at stake in primary debates might be what policies to pursue at the federal level and whether a candidate is capable of defending policies that advance their values and the nation at large in the general election campaign.

Political pundits following the campaign for the 2012 GOP nomination would often comment on the intensity of the attacks in the primary debates. And as we have noted, the Republican debates for the 2012 nomination drew audiences larger than previous campaigns. In previous research, we have found that direct attacks on another candidate's face are not correlated with electoral success and overall, incumbent presidents have a bit more leeway with this general rule of avoiding direct attacks (Dailey, Hinck, & Hinck, 2008). Given the idea that primary debates are less often about policy differences and more often are about whose discourse and political record reflects the most authentic commitment to party principles, it would seem that the 2012 GOP primary debates would feature a high degree of direct face threats concerning what it means to be a true conservative candidate strong enough to defeat the incumbent president. To assess the unique quality of primary debates versus general election debates, and to determine how face threats shaped the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, we posed the following research questions:

RQ 1: How do the Republican primary debates compare with general presidential campaign debates in the use of politeness strategies?

RQ 2: How do the Republican primary candidates compare to one another in terms of their use of politeness and the ways in which they were treated by other candidates?

Beyond a consideration of differences between general campaign debates and primary debates, and an assessment of the degree to which each candidate used politeness strategies to advance one's image, we were also interested in the effect that face threatening or face supporting messages might have on the tone of the debate, and ultimately the campaign. Therefore, we posed the following research question:

RQ 3: Is there a relationship between the politeness strategies a candidate uses and the way the candidate is treated?

Answering this research question might help us understand the debate dynamics created by use of either face threatening or face supporting messages. It could be the case that direct attacks engender more direct attacks, that face supportive messages call forth supportive messages on the part of debate participants, or that one or more candidates might choose to forego direct attacks in an attempt to use supportive messages or shift the discussion to a less aggressive tone. There could be other factors, however, that affect politeness in a debate. McKinney et al. (2001) found that front-runners in primary campaigns become the target of attacks in debates. Considering this finding in relation to the 2012 GOP primaries, we wondered if the use of politeness was related to poll standing in the campaign. Further, some (Bitzer & Rueter, 1980; McCall, 1984) have argued that the moderators' questions can function as an important prompt affecting the content of the debate. We wondered also whether there was a relationship between the moderators' questions and the overall tone of the debates. Therefore, we posed the following research questions:

RQ 4: Do politeness activities correlate with polling results?

RQ 5: Does politeness behavior correlate with moderator behavior?

Answering these questions will give us a sense of the role that politeness strategies play not only in shaping the candidates' images but also of the role of the moderator in setting the tone for the debate dialogue. It might be the case that face threatening questions from moderators call forth messages from candidates that result in face threatening messages towards others.


Selection of Debates and the Acquisition of Primary Texts

Nine Republican primary debates were coded and analyzed for this study (see Table 1). Viewership for each of these debates is based on Nielsen data (Ariens, 2013).

These debates coincided with the primary elections within the particular states and represented the timeliest source of information about the candidates' image developed in the debate transactions immediately prior to voting in the respective states. Studying these debates allowed us to examine the relationship between the politeness strategies chosen by the candidates and the impact of those strategies on the candidates' standing in the polls over the course of the GOP primaries. Additionally, these nine debates featured argumentative engagement during the crucial period of voting in these states. Other debate events did not feature the same degree of argumentation over differences among the leading candidates' issue positions (such as the Huckabee forums that featured candidate "interviews") or events did not include the major candidates...

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