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Political Communication & Issue Frames

What Campaign Speeches Reveal About Politicians

What can we learn from how presidential candidates’ stylistic choices in words and pronunciation vary as they speak to different audiences or about different subjects? Linguistics scholar and IPR associate Annette D’Onofrio and graduate student Amelia Stecker investigate speeches by Barack Obama, John McCain, and Mitt Romney from the 2008 and 2012 elections in Language in Society. They analyzed eight speeches for each speaker and campaign year, for a total of 32, and noted where the speeches were given and to whom. The researchers focused on two variables of speech—the use of -ing or -in at the end of a word, such as “thinking” vs. “thinking,” and the hard (known as released because a burst of air is released) or soft (unreleased) pronunciation of “t” at the end of a word such as “cat.” They also classified each sentence in the speeches by topic—for example, a description of an opponent or the speaker identifying as an ordinary American. Their findings confirm earlier research that candidates shifted their style of speech for different audiences, locations, and topics, but they also demonstrate that these shifts have social meaning. The candidates employ linguistic variations to build their public personas for particular locales and even topics, and use variability in their pronunciation to indicate, for example, flexibility or consistency, authenticity or acuity. D’Onofrio and Stecker conclude that the politicians’ variability in speech is socially meaningful, and that further study should explore how audiences evaluate it.

Identity Frames and #BlackLivesMatter Support

Tabitha Bonilla
IPR political scientist Tabitha Bonilla studies political behavior and communication and broadly examines how elite communication influences voter opinions of candidates and political policies

As Black Lives Matter (BLM) has grown into a national movement, social identity frames, or communication tactics that leaders use to harness follower support for social change may play a role in the identity groups they support. In a study in American Political Science Review, IPR political scientist Tabitha Bonilla and Alvin Tilley, also of Northwestern, examine how messages from BLM leaders about their gender, sexuality, and racial identities work as social movements frames, shaping attitudes and willingness of African Americans to participate in the BLM movement. Using a survey experiment to test the effect of three frames on mobilization, the researchers questioned 849 African Americans online from February 15–23, 2019. The survey presented four different readings—a control, Black nationalist, feminist, and LGBTQ+ frame—to subjects with short introductions about BLM, asking about their support of the movement, its effectiveness, and their assessments of its direction. Overall, respondents were familiar with and strongly supported BLM, and the Black nationalist reading did not differ much from the control. The Black feminist and Black LGBTQ+ readings negatively affected agreement with and support for BLM among men and those who do not identify as LGBTQ+. The findings suggest that using gender or LGBTQ+ identity frames for BLM does not mobilize any particular group more but does demobilize African American men. This research adds to work about the difficulty of creating movements that are intersectional and widely supported.

A Bottom-Up Approach to Welfare State Scholarship

Because the welfare state is so vital to many low-income Americans for survival, the ways scholars choose to study it are crucial. In Perspectives on Politics, IPR political science professor Chloe Thurston and her colleagues suggest political scientists study the welfare state from the perspective of those who use the welfare system, rather than from the vantage point of policymakers and elite institutions. Research into the welfare state may change when marginalized groups are centered by creating policy innovation, providing new insights into how people perceive the role of government in their lives, and encouraging research into less studied types of policymaking. They highlight two examples—civil legal assistance and consumer credit—of welfare state politics that become visible when they are examined from the bottom up. The civil legal system plays a key role in navigating disputes over public benefits, such as preventing illegal evictions and foreclosure, and the researchers suggest that political scientists look at the ways marginalized groups have engaged with these political institutions and the political consequences of doing so. A bottom-up approach to credit may illuminate differences in outcomes from using credit programs, such as credit cards, check cashing, and payday loans, compared to credit used for homeownership and education. The researchers argue that to understand the welfare state, scholars must develop and test theories of the welfare state that are cognizant of the lived experiences of those who benefit from it. This may include changing how scholars study it, such as using more ethnographic and interview methods.