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Republican Primary Candidates Break From the Norm by Criticizing a Republican President, says MU Researcher

Sept. 25, 2007

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

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Analysis of this year's presidential debates by a University of Missouri-Columbia faculty member indicates that Democratic candidates aren't the only ones criticizing President George W. Bush. So are Republicans, says MU researcher William Benoit.

"This is completely unprecedented," said Benoit, who teaches communication in the College of Arts and Science. "This has never happened before, and it's because this year Bush is so unusually unpopular. All of the Republicans want to distance themselves from Bush to some extent. They don't want to appear as traitors to the party, and they can't cling to his coattails; he doesn't have any coattails. They have to distinguish themselves and feel they have to be prepared to criticize him. They have to say, 'Here is a way that I'm not going to be like George W. Bush.'"

Benoit, who said the war in Iraq is contributing to the trend, found that Bush has been attacked 60 times by members of his party. The Republican candidates have attacked Democrats 75 times, he said. As an example, Benoit said that former President's Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were never attacked by candidates from their own party.

"At the end of Reagan's term, the Republicans attempting to get the nomination didn't attack Reagan," Benoit said. "At the end of Clinton's second term, the Democrats who were attempting to get the nomination didn't attack Clinton. Now, at the end of George W. Bush's second term, the Republicans are criticizing Bush fairly frequently. This has never happened before. Usually candidates want to support his or her own party."

Additional findings indicate:

  • Democrats criticized Republicans about 10 percent more often than they criticized fellow Democrats. In contrast, Republicans criticized one another about 15 percent more than they criticized Democrats.
  • Candidates from both parties have focused on policy/issues more than character/personality, with Democrats having a small edge in favor of policy (72 to 68 percent). Republicans stressed character more than Democrats (32 to 28 percent). "As a group, Democrats have a tendency to prefer governmental solutions to society's problems, and their primary debate statements reflect this emphasis on policy," Benoit said.
  • Democrats and Republicans both have made more positive than negative statements (roughly 75 to 25 percent) and previous primary debates, from 1948 to 2004, have not been as positive (65 percent were positive compared to 35 percent negative). "These debates may seem more negative than they are because past research has consistently found that news coverage of debates focuses on attacks much more than the candidates themselves," he said.

Note: Benoit will be available for comment after 3 p.m. on Sept. 25. He will be available from 9 a.m. to noon and 2 to 5 p.m. on Sept. 26. He can be reached at: 573-882-0545 or