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Presidential debates and their effects: research roundup

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Sep 20th, 2016.- The news media often anticipate televised presidential debates as a national event of great importance — a kind of Super Bowl of American democracy. But political scientists have noted that, in contrast to the party conventions, the general election debates do not typically have dramatic effects on voters.

To the extent that the debates are important in terms of persuasion, the format may slightly favor the challenger, about whom the public knows less. The classic example cited is John F. Kennedy (though research from political scientist Sydney Kraus confirms the proverbial notion that he won over the television audience but not the radio listenership). Moreover, gaffes can potentially hurt candidates, as with Gerald Ford’s faulty knowledge of Eastern Europe, George H.W. Bush’s looking at his watch and Al Gore’s audible sighing.

Though reporters often look for a winner and loser, viewers experience the debate differently, making two simultaneous judgments: One, whether or not the candidate seems “big enough” to be president; and two, whether one of the candidates is a better choice.

As political scientist Thomas Holbrook has pointed out, the earlier debates are more powerful in terms of voters’ learning about candidates. In his study “Political Learning from Presidential Debates,” Holbrook states: “The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the most important debate, at least in terms of information acquisition, is the first debate … The first debate is held at a time when voters have less information at their disposal and a larger share of voters are likely to be undecided.”

Reflecting on the Obama-McCain race of 2008, scholars Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Jeffrey A. Gottfried note that in a “transformed media environment” — where traditional news has ceded ground to non-mainstream media sources — the televised debates continued to play a unique role, as they have through history. “For almost five decades, studies have confirmed the power of presidential debates to increase voter knowledge, and 2008 was no exception,” they write. “The debates’ two-sided clash of competing ideas, unmediated by interpretation from reporters, spiked voter knowledge. In these often disparaged encounters, the presidential and vice presidential nominees took on the deceptions perpetrated by the other side, including those on health care and taxing proposals.”

One noteworthy area of potential impact of the debates is their capacity for what political scientists call “agenda setting”: The salience of a given policy or campaign issue in the public mind can rise as a result, and this may play to the strength or weakness of a particular campaign.



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