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Presidential Party Conventions Speeches Mostly Positive, says MU Researcher

Spouses take center stage as conventions adapt to changing times

Aug. 27, 2008

Story Contact:  Jeffrey Beeson, (573) 882-9144,

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Party nominees were once decided by men in smoke-filled back rooms. Now, party organizers go for flash and carefully scripted video photo-ops as presidential party nomination conventions have had to adapt with the changing times. With the loss of anticipation and drama that party conventions once brought, party organizers must carefully craft the convention around the reducing national television exposure.

William Benoit, one of the nation's leading experts on political campaigns and communication professor in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri, has analyzed the historical changes of presidential nomination conventions and political campaign speeches. Benoit said that the most important speeches at the party conventions are usually candidates' acceptance addresses and the keynote speeches. However, candidates' spouses have played a greater role at the party conventions recently.

"We first started seeing spouses playing a major role in party conventions in 1996 when Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Clinton gave speeches at their partys' conventions," Benoit said. "Research on candidates spouses' speeches since 1996 has found that 98 percent of their statements are positive. They also focus more on character than policy, with 73 percent of remarks about a person's character."

Most people have the impression that campaigns are mostly negative. However, this impression is probably a result of news coverage that is mainly negative. In his research, Benoit looked at how the national media has covered the election. While he found that most of the speeches and debates are kept mostly positive, news coverage of general election campaigns is more negative. The news media also stress the "horse race" (40 percent) more then coverage of the candidate's character (31 percent) or the candidate’s policy issues (25 percent).

Benoit also looked at the keynote speeches and acceptance addresses during party conventions.  Keynote speeches are often given by an up-and-coming member of the party, like Barack Obama's 2004 Democratic keynote address. He found that statements in keynote addresses consist of mostly positive statements, 55 percent to 45 percent, over negative remarks. In acceptance addresses, Benoit had similar findings. 

"Candidate acceptance addresses have about 77 percent of positive statements whereas 23 percent of statements are attacks on the opposing party or its nominee," Benoit said. "This compares to 40 percent of attacks from statements in TV spots and 35 percent of statements in debates from the general election contest."

William 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). He has a webpage on political campaigns:


NOTE: Benoit will be available for comment from 8:30 to 5 p.m. (CST) on Wednesday, Aug. 27 and Friday, Aug. 29 and from 8:30 to 1 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 28.