Strategic Maneuvering in the 2008 Presidential Debates

Eric Morris, Missouri State University
Jessica M. Johnson, MSU Graduate Student


Application of the pragma-dialectic perspective, and particularly, strategic maneuvering, to political argumentation remains sparse. To address the issue in the context of the 2008 campaigns, the clash strategies of Barack Obama and John McCain during the debates were coded using the same content analysis codebook as prior analyses of presidential debates, allowing comparison between 2008 and the other nine electoral cycles with general election debates. The 2008 debates included significant shifts in the candidates’ use of ritualistic discourse, direct statements to opponent, self-analysis, opponent analysis, policy statements, comparison, and cooption. Although structural elements continue to serve as a corrective to functional theory, it appeared that the political climate, more than format, explained these changes. The findings suggest that candidates engage in strategic maneuvering consistent with the focal-points perspective and that campaigns engage in competitive learning in an attempt to master format modifications.