Communication Currents

Current Commentary

What Sanders and Buttigieg Teach Us About Rhetoric

April 19, 2019
Current Commentary, Political Communication

By Richard Cherwitz, Ph.D.

My purpose in writing is not partisan. Echoing my prior Current Commentary essays, I wish to discuss the rhetorical lessons that candidates of all political stripes can learn, offering examples of politicians who take to heart these lessons—even if they don’t reflect my own political ideology or candidate preferences.

Longtime scholar Dan Nimmo, whose research has contributed to the disciplines of Political Science, Journalism, and Communication, was one of the first to define and analyze the various audiences that political candidates might address. These audiences ranged from true believers (the base supporters who must be motivated to work for the campaign), to those open to persuasion (voters who may not have made up their minds and/or don’t follow the campaign closely), to those who are weakly supportive and must be motivated to vote, to those who are firmly committed to the opposition candidate and beyond persuasive reach.

For Nimmo, there is a key question that all candidates confront: Strategically, to which audiences do you want to allocate your finite amount of money and devote your limited rhetorical resources? What has become clear since Donald Trump became President is that politicians seem more inclined than ever to communicate primarily to their own tribe; they are reluctant to target the opposition’s audience.

Two notable exceptions to this trend are Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. To be clear, I am not endorsing or recommending either as the choice of the Democrats for President of the United States. I have not made up my mind about whom to support—and won’t until more is known about each candidate.

Nevertheless, as someone who has spent a 40-plus year career studying and teaching Communication, I applaud both Sanders and Buttigieg for the way they are responding to Nimmo’s question about audiences, and hence how they are teaching other presidential hopefuls some important rhetorical lessons.

First, consider Sanders. I must applaud his decision to do a town hall inside the Fox News bubble on the evening of Monday, April 15—a place one would guess is unfriendly to his policy proposals. It should be noted that Sanders is one of only a small number of Democrats thus far to enter this den. This is significant rhetorically.

A key political communication principle emerging from Nimmo’s research is that candidates for public office may not be successful by preaching exclusively to their own choir.

A key political communication principle emerging from Nimmo’s research is that candidates for public office may not be successful by preaching exclusively to their own choir. Sanders’ decision to talk with Fox News shows that he and his handlers understand this principle. Moreover, moving outside his comfort zone—to speak to an audience comprised of many who do not share his political beliefs—appears to have been successful.

To the surprise—if not chagrin—of the Fox hosts, Sanders received enthusiastic applause from the town hall audience on several important issues; most notably, the audience expressed a clear willingness to give up their current healthcare insurance plan for a single payer provider.

The rhetorical lesson Sanders may be teaching his fellow Democrat presidential aspirants is obvious: To defeat Donald Trump will require going well beyond their political base; it will necessitate venturing outside the echo chamber that already embraces their candidacy. And, it appears candidates are learning the lesson: Since the Sanders Fox News appearance, Amy Klobuchar has scheduled her own Fox News town hall, and aides for Pete Buttigieg, Eric Swalwell, Tim Ryan have told media representatives that their candidates were hoping to make similar appearances.

With Buttigieg, a second rhetorical lesson is emerging—one quite distinct from Sanders’. Recent polling and campaign donation data reveals that with each day, with every new speech and additional interview, Americans are becoming increasingly impressed by Pete Buttigieg. Why? Perhaps it is because his rhetorical message is unique, which also may be why he is this month’s media darling—something that could result in further boosts in public opinion.

First, Buttigieg’s discourse underscores his sharp intellect, compassion, clear vision and hope for America, impeccable understanding of history, ability to talk directly to voters, and thorough grounding in the issues facing our nation—all of which are nothing less than striking.

Second, and more significant, Buttigieg has chosen—deliberately, I suspect—to generally avoid invoking Trump’s name or attacking him explicitly and directly. From a rhetorical perspective, this is important. Buttigieg appears to have decided not to alienate Trump voters in any way that might give them additional reasons and motivation to vote for the incumbent president.

This rhetorical choice could prove that Buttigieg is that once-in-a-lifetime presidential candidate who enters the scene at precisely the right moment with a potentially persuasive, positive, and bipartisan message—a message avoiding attack and calling for genuine change (where “change” is more than a clichéd and tired rhetorical trope) to extricate the country from a dangerous time in history.

In short, whoever the Democrats nominate, it would behoove them to take note of the rhetorical lessons being taught by Sanders and Buttigieg—lessons that are grounded in Political Communication research.


An earlier version of this article was published in the April 17, 2019, online edition of the New York Daily News.

About the author (s)

Rick Cherwitz

The University of Texas at Austin

Rick Cherwitz, Ph.D., is the Ernest S. Sharpe Centennial Professor Emeritus in the Moody College of Communication and founding director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium (IE), the University of Texas at Austin.

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