Since January, Bill Benoit has been quoted more than 800 times in newspapers and on radio and TV broadcasts. His expertise on political communication is sought in Columbia and nationally, and most of the time, it is respected.
When it is not, it’s probably a Rush Limbaugh-like incident. The conservative radio talk-show host attacked an article in 2001 that quoted Benoit as saying some Americans might have thought the president wasn’t doing his job, given the long vacation President Bush was taking at the time.
Limbaugh didn’t let the accusation slide and attacked the professor for suggesting that Bush was not fulfilling his presidential duty.
Benoit can take it.
“It is a good feeling that so many reporters use my ideas,” said Benoit, 51. “I really like to publish articles and books, but it is nice to think that some of my ideas reach a broader audience.”
Dressed in a baggy shirt and shorts and sporting frizzy red shoulder-length hair and a beard, Benoit doesn’t fit the clean-cut, suit-wearing image of politics. But Benoit probably knows more about politics than many politicians do.
The walls of his office are lined with close to 900 books, about 150 of them dealing with politics. Printouts of articles, debate schedules and other campaign information litter his desk. Somehow, amid what looks like chaos, Benoit manages to teach a political advertising class, serve as editor of the Journal of Communication, advise students, attend faculty meetings, serve on the College of Arts and Science Promotion and Tenure Committee, run a campaign-evaluation Web site and give countless interviews. And he still finds the time and energy to watch and evaluate political ads on television.
Benoit's entry into political research
Benoit’s political research began in 1993 while advising Bill Wells, then an MU student who wrote his graduate research practicum on the 1992 presidential debates. Since then, Benoit has written five books about presidential campaigns and election coverage.
Wells and Benoit share something else in common — they collect presidential election buttons. Benoit’s collection, which he has been working on for six years, tops out at about 300 buttons. He keeps them in large binders on one of the shelves in his office.
“I think he’s an outstanding scholar,” said Wells, now the senior coordinator of assessment research in the College of Education. “He helped me out a lot, and I have many fond memories.”
Benoit shares his interest in politics through his Web site, which includes information and analysis of the 2004 presidential campaign. His team analyzes presidential debates and political advertisements and the impact they have on viewers. The site also debunks the top 10 presidential campaign myths, including the popular “every vote counts.”
Benoit counters, although he hates to admit it, that because the Electoral College is used to elect the president, once a candidate receives a majority of votes, the remaining popular votes don’t really count. Voters might realize this, he said, which can lead to smaller voter turnout.
This is the reason candidates zoom in on battleground states, where the outcome is less certain. Research has shown that ads, which focus primarily on the candidates’ positions on important issues, can influence undecided voters or those affiliated with an independent party. Political ads have three functions: to promote a candidate, to criticize an opponent and to defend a candidate from an opponent’s attacks.
Benoit’s work might make the news, but that doesn’t mean he likes the way the media operate.
“I don’t think the news is doing a very good job covering the campaign,” Benoit said.
The media emphasize negative issues more than the candidates because “conflict is interesting,” he said. Coverage of elections focuses mainly on the “horse race” aspect, such as campaign strategy, poll results and social events, he added, and the media focus less on candidates’ characters and even less on their policies.
“The press is less likely to trust politicians,” he said, which leads to critical coverage of candidates. “The news is significantly more negative than the candidates themselves.”
That doesn’t mean Benoit is necessarily a fan of politicians.
“I probably do not rank politicians as the most trustworthy group of people,” he said. “But they are not the worst, either.” Used-car salespeople, spammers, con artists and thieves might make up the worst group, he said.
Benoit’s interest in the campaign carries over from his office into his home. His wife, Pam, assistant dean of the Graduate School at MU, said the TV is always on at home, and her husband is always recording campaign coverage. He clips articles out of newspapers all the time and is continuously in analysis mode. Benoit said that during the news he is constantly looking for political commercials to record.
“I don’t know anybody else who channel-surfs for commercials,” he said.
Benoit’s involvement in politics doesn’t end with this election. He is also analyzing past campaigns and is looking at The New York Times’ coverage of primary presidential ads from 1952 to 2000, which follows a recent study he did of the Times’ coverage of general presidential campaigns from the same years.
Wells — whose interest in presidential debates sparked Benoit’s research — considers his mentor an authority in politics, especially when it comes to the debates.
“I think he’s made a tremendous contribution to the overall analysis and enhanced our understanding of what presidential debates are,” Wells said. “He’s put a lot of analysis into it and become what I would consider one of the nationally known experts on debates.”
Benoit’s Web site can be found at http://presidentialcampaign2004.coas.missouri.edu/.