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MU Professor Says Pre-Super Tuesday Debates Mostly Positive

Democrats more negative, place more emphasis on policy than Republicans

Feb. 13, 2008

Story Contact:  Bryan E. Jones, (573) 882-9144,

COLUMBIA, Mo. -  An analysis, conducted by University of Missouri Communication Professor William Benoit and doctoral candidate Jayne Henson of the MU College of Arts and Science, revealed the content of 17 Democratic and 15 Republican presidential debates prior to "Super Tuesday" was mostly positive.

The study indicated 68 percent of the statements by candidates of both political parties in the debates were positive. Democratic debates had more attacks (27 percent to the Republicans' 24 percent) and fewer defenses (five percent) than Republican debates (seven percent).

According to Benoit, when grouping the candidates in each debate, the Democratic candidates tended to use more attacks as the campaign progressed. This was not true for the Republicans.  However, Democrats criticized Republicans, including President Bush, more than the GOP candidates attacked Democrats.

In debates from both of these political parties, the number of defenses (responses to attacks) used by a candidate was significantly related to the number of attacks targeted against that candidate.

"Being attacked motivates a candidate to respond," Benoit said. "Attacks provide an opportunity to respond. Moderators frequently interrupt the order in which candidates talk in order to provide those attacked with chances to respond."

In these debates, Republicans attacked other Republicans more than they criticized Democrats.  In contrast, Democrats criticized one another just as often as they criticized the GOP.  This, Benoit says, is likely due to the relatively low popularity of Republican President Bush.  In fact, many Republicans criticized the Bush administration in these debates.

"It is unusual for candidates in a primary debate to attack a president from their own party when that president is not a candidate," Benoit said.

The study also analyzed the topics addressed by the candidates.  Candidates in both political parties more frequently discussed policy than character. However, Democratic debaters discussed policy even more than Republicans (82 percent compared to 67 percent), and character less than Republicans (18 percent to 32 percent). 

One point of interest Benoit found is Democrats tended to discuss Iraq more than Republicans, whereas Republicans were prone to talk about terrorism more than Democrats. According to Benoit, public opinion polls from 2007 suggested voters tended to think Democrats were the party best able to address issues concerning Iraq, but Republicans were perceived to be better able to deal with terrorism.

Benoit has been a MU faculty member since 1984. He is the second-most published scholar of all time in significant communication research journals. Benoit is the author of several books on political campaigns, including Communication in Political Campaigns (2007).