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MU Professor Says History Could Dictate Tone of First Democratic Debate

April 25, 2007

Story Contact:  Bryan Daniels, 573-882-9144,

COLUMBIA, Mo. — The 2008 Democratic presidential contenders will square off Thursday night in the first nationally televised debate of the campaign season. Research by a University of Missouri-Columbia professor could provide viewers and analysts a glimpse of what to expect from the eight candidates.

Covering a 56-year period (1948 through 2004), William Benoit, communication professor in the College of Arts and Science and one of the nation's leading experts on political campaigns, has analyzed the statements of presidential hopefuls during broadcast debates. There are several common qualities, he said. Among them:

  • Most feature positive statements (64 percent of the time), less attacks (31 percent) and fewer defenses (4 percent).
  • Primary debates are traditionally more positive than general election debates (57 percent are positive).
  • Contenders tend to attack the front-runner more than other candidates. “This could explain why Ronald Reagan in 1980 proposed the 'golden rule,' which was: thou shalt not attack your fellow-Republicans,” Benoit said. “As the front-runner, the other Republican candidates tended to constantly attack Reagan.”
  • Candidates are more likely to attack others from the same party. For example, Democrats will attack Democrats, and Republicans will criticize Republicans. “After all, they have to defeat members of their own political party to win the nomination,” Benoit said. “However, 2004 was an exception as Democrats in their primary campaign attacked President Bush more than they attacked each another.”
  • Presidential primary debates stress policy more than character (68 to 32 percent). The emphasis on policy is even higher in general debates (75 to 25 percent).
  • News coverage of presidential primary debates focuses on the negative. Newspaper stories mention attacks more often than candidates make attacks in debates; when candidates make positive statements, reporters are less likely to mention such statements in their stories.

Benoit has been a MU faculty member since 1984. He is one of the 10 most published scholars of all time in the field of communication studies. Benoit is the author of several books on political campaigns, including Communication in Political Campaigns (2007).