On the Spot: A Functional Analysis of Congressional Television Spots, 1980–2004


Congressional elections are crucial to the American political system and candidates spend millions of dollars seeking votes with television spots. Unfortunately, the literature in this area is a hodgepodge of studies (with different methods and samples) rather than a comprehensive analysis of congressional television advertising. This study utilized the Functional Theory of Political Campaign Discourse to content analyze 744 television spots for House and Senate candidates from 1980–2004. Candidate discourse in these spots employed acclaiming (positive) strategies much more frequently than attacking (negative) or defending (refutational) strategies. Unlike discourse in presidential campaigns, congressional TV spots tend to place equal emphasis on policy and character (although since 1992 the emphasis has been on policy). Democrats tend to attack more and to discuss policy more than their counterparts. Incumbents acclaimed more and attacked less than challengers, whereas open-seat candidates have a style that lies between these two extremes. Open-seat candidates discuss past deeds less frequently than incumbents or challengers, both of whom tend to rely on the incumbent's record to attack (challengers) or to acclaim (incumbents).

Document Type





congressional television spots, functional theory, incumbency, political party

Publication Date


Journal Title

Communication Studies