Democratic Platform Focus

Convention

There have been predictions that the 2016 election will be among the most negative in modern politics. Both candidates have high unfavorable ratings. And with the Democratic convention officially approving the party’s platform on Monday, we have another instance of attack-heavy politics: There are 32 mentions of Donald Trump in the Democratic platform. At first glance, this might not seem like such a big deal. After all, the Republicans’ convention featured chants about putting Hillary Clinton in jail. But the Democrats’ Trump-laden platform is unusual.

When a party has a president in the White House, the party platform has tended not to focus on the opposing party’s candidate.1 That’s changed a bit recently, and the 2016 Democratic platform solidifies that trend:

YEAR PARTY MENTIONS OF OPPONENT TOTAL WORDS
1952 D 0 8,878
1956 R 0 11,390
1960 R 0 10,680
1964 D 0 20,126
1968 D 0 16,791
1972 R 0 24,407
1976 R 1 20,463
1980 D 0 34,558
1984 R 54 27,383
1988 R 0 35,838
1992 R 0 28,531
1996 D 21 18,107
2000 D 5 24,220
2004 R 3 41,275
2008 R 0 23,585
2012 D 22 26,558
2016 D 32 26,058
Platforms of parties when they hold the White House

Note: The Democratic candidate in 1984, Walter Mondale, was the vice president during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and most of these references are to the “Carter-Mondale” administration.

SOURCE: THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY PROJECT

The number of Trump mentions is roughly in line with the number of times the Democratic platform mentioned Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Richard Nixon in 1972 and George W. Bush in 2004, according to The American Presidency Project. But there’s a big difference — those platforms all came in years when Democrats were running against incumbent presidents. Here are the number of opponent mentions in platforms for out-of-power parties:

MENTIONS
ELECTION PARTY OF OPPONENT OF OUTGOING PRESIDENT (IF DIFFERENT) TOTAL WORDS
1952 R 0 0 5,988
1956 D 31 12,839
1960 D 0 1 16,089
1964 R 0 8,740
1968 R 4 4 10,013
1972 D 51 24,407
1976 D 15 10 21,202
1980 R 125 34,558
1984 D 197 37,231
1988 D 0 0 4,838
1992 D 11 8,555
1996 R 153 27,817
2000 R 3 2 34,555
2004 D 39 17,751
2008 D 0 8 25,997
2012 R 10 30,563
2016 R 1 19 35,467
Platforms of parties when they don’t hold the White House

Note: The 1964 Republican platform does mention “the administration” throughout, but that’s not counted here. All four mentions of the incumbent president in 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson, were in conjunction with the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey.
In 1976, “opponent” refers to Gerald Ford and “outgoing president” to Richard Nixon.

SOURCE: THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY PROJECT

The average number of opponent mentions is about 38 for the party out of power, while it’s around eight for the party that controls the White House. For whatever reason, this is especially true for the party in power when it doesn’t have an incumbent president on the ticket. When there was a candidate running for a third term of party control — Nixon in 1960, George H.W. Bush in 1988, John McCain in 2008 — most of the party platforms didn’t mention the opponent (Gore mentioned George W. Bush a handful of times). Clinton deviates from that pattern.

It is, however, becoming more common for the party in power to mention the opposing candidate in its platform. This trend might reflect closer competition and tighter presidential election margins, or simply higher levels of polarization and incentive to provide “red meat” (or the less appetizing blue meat, I guess) to the base. Whatever the reason, when it comes to focusing on the opponent, this year’s platform is out of step with comparable years.

 

 

Footnotes

  1. All the data in this article is based on searching through each platform — available at The American Presidency Project — for each candidate’s last name. I also checked each reference to make sure it was to the relevant candidate. ^

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties, and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

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