Political Behavior, Vol. 25, No. 2, June 2003 ( 2003)
BUDGET RHETORIC IN PRESIDENTIAL
CAMPAIGNS FROM 1952 TO 2000
Barry C. Burden and Joseph Neal Rice Sanberg
We offer a theory to identify the determinants of presidential campaign rhetoric re-
lated to the federal budget. The theory builds on the literature dealing with issue
ownership, candidate strategy, retrospective voting, and voter preferences to generate
eight hypotheses about the use of budget rhetoric. To test these hypotheses, over 800
campaign speeches from the major party presidential nominees from 1952 to 2000
are content analyzed. The content analysis generates measures of both the volume
and tone of budget rhetoric. Volume is driven primarily by the objective balance of
the budget and subjective importance given to it by voters and a conditional effect
involving budget balance, incumbency, and partisanship. Tone is more complex, with
“positive” rhetoric determined mostly by the budget balance and partisanship and
“overstated” rhetoric shaped solely by the salience of the budget to the electorate.
The article concludes with suggestions for future research.
Key words: presidential campaign; budget; rhetoric; partisanship; incumbency.
Creation of the annual federal budget is perhaps the single most important
responsibility of the national government. Not only does it account for the
fiscal comings and goings of the U.S. government, but it also touches upon
nearly every policy area about which voters might care. The federal budget
issue thus deserves the attention of political scientists who study electoral
politics because it encompasses a broad spectrum of policy concerns associ-
ated with policy positions that often emerge at the focal point of electoral
For many voters the state of the budget is mostly symbolic. Although the
federal budget certainly provides a convenient summary of the hierarchy of
national political priorities (Kettl, 1992; Shuman, 1984; Wildavsky and Caiden,
Barry C. Burden, Harvard University, Department of Government, Littauer Center, Cam-
bridge, MA 02138 (firstname.lastname@example.org). Joseph Neal Rice Sanberg, The Blackstone Group,
345 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10154 (email@example.com).
0190-9320/03/0300-0097/0 2003 Plenum Publishing Corporation