Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2011


The literature on “domestic audience costs” focuses mainly on threats made by democratic leaders to signal credible commitments. Yet it largely ignores pledges made by democratic candidates along the campaign trail. Candidates often engage in a rhetorical “arms race” with each other to project resolve to voters on issues of international relations, whether it is protecting the country, fighting terrorism, or standing up to foreign aggression. Yet, unlike other audience costs, candidates face a conflict of preferences based on competing time horizons. That is, the short-term incentives (winning votes) for taking more hard-line stances can outweigh the long-term costs (getting boxed in by pledges made). Many campaign promises are mere bluster, but some can signal to foreign leaders a candidate’s future willingness to fight or back down, with important implications for crisis bargaining down the road. Using this framework, this paper analyzes the candidates’ rhetoric regarding foreign affairs during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign and the subsequent policy decisions made by President Barack Obama.