All knowledge is not created equal: knowledge effects and the 2012 presidential debates.

Author:Gottfried, Jeffrey A.

Decades of research have confirmed that debates increase viewer knowledge about the issue stands of the candidates (e.g., Benoit, Hansen, and Verser 2003). However, the conditions under which viewers learn are less well understood. In this article, we examine how differences in the context of information in presidential debates affect both who learns from such debates and what they learn. We ask three research questions regarding learning from exposure to the 2012 general election presidential debates: (1) Did these debates increase knowledge of the content discussed in them? (2) Were viewers more likely to learn about issues and matters relevant to the 2012 presidential election when one candidate challenged the other's view or when the candidate's statement was not contested? (3) Does learning occur at the same rate regardless of viewer political predispositions, or did confirmation bias determine whether and which individuals learned from the debates?

Issue Knowledge and "Correct" Voting

For a representative democracy to work, citizens must be able to cast a "correct vote" (Lau and Redlawsk 1997), one in line with their policy preferences. In a world in which presidential campaigns do at times mislead (see Jackson and Jamieson 2007), citizens may vote for a candidate on the supposition that their positions align when in fact they do not (see Waldman and Jamieson 2006). In 2008, for example, the Obama campaign used targeted radio ads to deceptively cast Senator John McCain as opposed to federal funding for stem-cell research (see Kenski, Hardy, and Jamieson 2010). If a stem-cell issue voter voted against McCain based on this deceptive message, then an "incorrect vote" was cast.

Because most of us do not personally know national political actors, we rely on media and campaign events to provide the necessary information to cast a "correct vote." One important function of presidential campaigns, then, is to inform voters of candidate policy stands and of other factual information that is relevant to the election. In our system of government, this function is central because, as Gans (2003) wrote, "The country's democracy may belong directly or indirectly to its citizens, but the democratic process can only be truly meaningful if these citizens are informed" (1). Debates offer a unique opportunity for voters to gain such information.

Debates and Learning

Since incumbent president and Republican nominee Gerald R. Ford challenged Democrat Jimmy Carter to a series of nationally televised debates in 1976, broadcast debates have become standard campaign events in U.S. politics. These quadrennial events demand an unmatched level of accountability of those seeking public office. Research on debate viewing effects has focused primarily on political learning and shifts in vote intentions (e.g., Benoit and Hansen 2004; Chaffee 1978; Jamieson and Adasiewicz 2000). We focus on the former.

Past studies have consistently linked debates viewing with higher levels of political knowledge. A meta-analysis of 18 studies on debates from 1976 to 2000 (total N--7,202) found a mean weighted correlation coefficient of 0.256 between debates and political knowledge, suggesting that on average, debate viewing has a substantial impact on viewer learning of the candidates' policy positions (Benoit, Hansen, and Verser 2003). Some research suggests that debates increase issue salience and have an agenda-setting effect (Becker et al. 1978; Benoit and Hansen 2004). Benoit and Hansen (2004) examined the 1976, 1984, 1996, and 2000 data in the American National Election Studies (ANES) and found that debate watchers cited more issues in their evaluations of the candidates than did nondebate watchers. Consistent with these findings, we hypothesize,

Hypothesis 1: Exposure to the 2012 presidential debates will increase accurate knowledge of the issues and matters discussed in the debates themselves.

Debate Learning by Type of Information

This study adds to the existing literature by examining whether and how the context in which information is discussed within a presidential debate affects rates of learning. In debates, information can be divided into two categories: that which is contested and uncontested. Contested information is presented by one candidate and challenged by the other. Uncontested information is presented without challenge. We will treat these information structures as two different informational contexts.

The structure of campaign information can influence the motivation and the ability of individuals to process it (Rahn, Aldrich, and Borgida 1994). For example, a candidate speech is a simple structure that is often person-centered and invites easy candidate evaluation. Debates, on the other hand, are more complex, presenting information on a number of different facets from two or more candidates in an alternating format. Rahn, Aldrich, and Borgida (1994) characterize debates as a dimension-center format and conclude that the more person-centered information contexts, such as the candidate speeches, require less cognitive effort to process, whereas in the more dimension-centered contexts, such as debates, the complex presentation of the information may interfere with the ability to make sense of the information (Rahn, Aldrich, and Borgida 1994). This finding is consistent with Just, Crigler, and Wallach's (1990) finding that political ads are more likely to increase candidate knowledge than debates.

Like the candidate speech, uncontested information provides a single viewpoint or dimension. By contrast, contested information creates a more complex context. Among other things, the presence of two or more sides to an argument can lead to confusion. Thus, we further hypothesize,

Hypothesis 2: Information introduced by one candidate and not rebutted by the other-uncontested information--is learned at the greater rate than information that is presented by one candidate but challenged by the opponent--contested information.

Similar to Rahn, Aldrich, and Borgida (1994), we hypothesize that motivation and ability to process information in these two different contexts will vary based on viewers' political sophistication. Because political sophisticates have greater "cognitive dexterity, they should be less constrained by the structure of the information imposed on them" (Rahn, Aldrich, and Borgida 1994, 195). Likewise, since processing contested information requires greater cognitive effort than uncontested information (see Hypothesis 2) and since political sophisticates have greater cognitive dexterity, they should be less hobbled by complex information contexts than political nonsophisticates. Thus,

Hypothesis 3: The rate of learning in general and learning from contested exchanges in particular will be greater among political sophisticates than political nonsophisticates.

Previous studies have found that one's political beliefs will influence how one interacts with and processes political information because of selective attention and exposure (Graf and Aday 2008; Stroud 2008, 2011). But when viewers are exposed to a source that presents information that is both consistent and inconsistent with their political beliefs, viewers will likely rely on heuristics, such as candidate preference, in determining which side is accurate. The confirmation bias hypothesis suggests that people bolster "hypotheses or beliefs whose truth is in question," create "one-sided case building processes]," and interpret "evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand" (Nickerson 1998, 175). When exposed to information in a debate, particularly information that is contested, confirmation bias should be actively and forcefully at play. The same may not be true of uncontested information because the accuracy of this information is not in question. Specifically, viewers may respond to uncontested claims using a simple heuristic that assumes if the statement was not accurate, the side disadvantaged by the information would flag the inaccuracy. Therefore, we hypothesize,

Hypothesis 4: When information in a debate is contested, viewers will be more likely to accept the interpretation offered by their preferred candidate, but uncontested information will be accepted regardless of candidate preference.


We analyze data from the Annenberg Public Policy Center's (APPC) Institutions of Democracy 2012 Political Knowledge Survey, a six-wave national cross-sectional telephone survey of U.S. adults, 18 years or older, conducted during and after the 2012 presidential election. In this article, we use waves 3 and 4 since they were conducted immediately following the second and third presidential debates. Wave 3 was fielded between October 17 and October 23, 2012, and wave 4 between October 24 and October 29, 2012. Throughout the analyses in this article, wave 3 is used to test the hypotheses only for the second presidential debate, and wave 4 is used to test the hypothesis only for the third presidential debate, since each wave was fielded immediately following each respective debate.

Under contract to APPC, Social Science Research Solutions (SSRS) completed a total of 1,233 interviews for wave 3 and 1,248 for wave 4 with randomly selected adults contacted through random-digit dialing (RDD) of cell phones (wave 3: N = 422; wave 4: N = 430) and landline telephones (wave 3: N = 811; wave 4: N =...

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