Auditioning for the Rhetorical Presidency: Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speeches as 'Presidential' Documents
2009 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Toronto, Canada, September 2009
42 Pages Posted: 20 Aug 2009
Date Written: August 18, 2009
Scholars have identified various genres of presidential speech and developed interesting and varying arguments about the nature and effectiveness of presidential rhetoric. One area of scholarship that deserves attention is a thorough examination of the content of pre-presidential speeches, specifically presidential nomination acceptance speeches. A candidate’s acceptance speech launches the general election campaign and provides each party’s nominee with a significant rhetorical opportunity. We examine the nature of the rhetoric used in nomination acceptance speeches given by Democratic and Republican presidential candidates since 1948. During this time period there have been many significant changes in the electoral and institutional landscapes. Nomination acceptance speeches offer a glimpse as to how candidates have chosen to rhetorically respond, or not, to electoral and institutional changes. Did candidates adjust their rhetoric in response to these changes? Specifically, how do candidates present themselves personally, particularly how do they portray their personal biography and partisanship? Did the use of religious rhetoric in acceptance speeches change over time as the Religious Right became more of an electoral force? Finally, as the institution of the presidency changed and the public’s expectations of presidents’ legislative responsibilities increased it is important to examine the policy substance nominees have chosen to incorporate in these speeches, especially how they claim credit for past policy accomplishments and how they take positions on policy. With this data, we can examine changes that have occurred over time in this form of speech that is unique to the era of the modern presidency. Our results indicate that in some instances, candidates were very adaptive with their rhetorical approach. In response to electoral and institutional changes, candidates begin incorporating more biographical sentences while de-emphasizing partisan references. Republican nominees respond beginning in 1980 by incorporating significantly more religious rhetoric than in the previous time period, however, Democrats did not. Candidates also begin progressively including more policy substance in their speeches by claiming credit for collective accomplishments and ratcheting up the amount of position taking in which they engage. Overall, we find that this genre of speech is a surprisingly adaptable one that has evolved into a speech that is much more “presidential” than it was initially, thus providing each nominee with a chance to audition for the rhetorical presidency.
Keywords: presidential rhetoric, nomination acceptance speeches
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