They’re Not Just Words: The Verbal Style of U.S. Presidential Debate Rhetoric

David Lynn Painter, Juliana Fernandes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Televised U.S. presidential debates are the most-watched, if not the most-researched, political events in history. While prior studies have largely focused on general election contests, this longitudinal content analysis used DICTION software to parse the effects of election level, partisanship, and time on the candidates’ word choices or verbal styles in 35 general and 121 primary election debates. The results indicate that general election debate rhetoric contained significantly more optimism and certainty than primary debate rhetoric. Additionally, the rhetorical cleavage between the parties was located in the primary debates where the Democratic candidates used significantly more rhetorical realism, activity, and commonality than Republican candidates who used more rhetorical certainty. Further, we also found significantly less rhetorical certainty in the 2010s and the 2020 general election debate rhetoric than in the 1960s and 1970s. Finally, we found interaction effects on optimism and realism that also supported our propositions that U.S. presidential candidates’ rhetoric is meaningful at the semantic level, and that their verbal styles may reveal informative perspectives on the speakers and their speech acts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)899-914
Number of pages16
JournalCommunication Studies
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2021


  • Verbal style
  • general election
  • political campaign
  • primary election
  • verbal tone

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication


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