Do presidential debates matter? Examining a decade of campaign debate effects.

Author:McKinney, Mitchell S.

It has become an expected narrative of the quadrennial U. S. presidential selection that once nominating conventions have adjourned, attention quickly turns to the next big event of the presidential campaign--the presidential debates. After months--sometimes years--of campaigning, major-party nominees finally meet face-to-face, often for the very first time, to persuade voters that each is more qualified than the opposition to lead the United States. During the predebate period marked by heightened media attention and by the candidates attempting to set debate expectations, it is typical for political pundits and journalists to speculate if the debates will be a "game changer," or, on the other hand, if the debates will even matter at all. For some journalists, campaign strategists, and even academics, the debates' usefulness seems to turn on their ability to affect the outcome of the presidential contest (Hu, 2012).

While campaign debates may well have their detractors, decades of research provide a convincing response to critics who question whether debates do in fact matter. From their ability to educate voters and positively affect normative attitudes, to their engagement of citizens in the ongoing campaign dialogue, and, yes, debates' ability to influence votes and elections-especially in particularly tight races-there is compelling evidence to answer in the affirmative when asked, "Do debates matter?" (for comprehensive reviews of the extant campaign debate research, see Benoit, Hansen, & Verser, 2003; McKinney & Carlin, 2004, The Racine Group, 2002). In their white paper on campaign debate scholarship and agenda for future debate research that appeared in the pages of this journal, a group of noted debate scholars concluded, "Thus, while journalists and scholars display varying degrees of cynicism about the debates, few deny that viewers find them useful, and almost no one doubts that they play an important role in national campaigns" (The Racine Group, 2002, p. 201).

Indeed, debate scholars have increasingly moved beyond the more simplistic question of whether or not debates matter to focusing greater research attention on illuminating the various ways and specific contexts in which they matter. As The Racine Group (2002) argued, scholars need "to identify the underlying logic of debates" to better understand the specific effects we find, how these effects are achieved, and under what conditions and on which particular debate viewers we find certain effects (p. 215). The scholars of the Racine Group noted that existing approaches to campaign debate research are often lacking in "systematic, long-term coordination" (p. 201); and "we need sustained programmatic research on topics or puzzles that recur across debates ... more comparative studies in which the operation of a particular variable can be examined in different debates" (p. 215).

The Racine Group's (2002) call for future debate research corresponds with Benoit and Holbert's (2008) call for broader communication research that highlights "empirical intersections," research agendas driven by greater study replication to identify "intersections between studies ... [and] programmatic research which systematically investigates an aspect of communication with a series of related studies conducted across contexts" (p. 615). Such approach to scholarly work, Benoit and Holbert (2008) argue, allows researchers to build theory as related results

buildup over time and across studies [and] a series of relationships becomes evident ... results that may arise at one point in time and within a particular context may not withstand the test of time, but this may never become known without replication. (p. 616)

The current study heeds the call for greater attention to "the trans-campaign effects of debates on such matters as voting behavior, image formation, and attitude change" (The Racine Group, 2002, p. 199). In fact, our specific exploration of debate viewing effects includes examination of candidate vote choice, candidate image evaluation, and debate effects on important political engagement attitudes, including political information efficacy and political cynicism. Our study explores debate effects across multiple campaign periods, including analysis of the presidential election cycles and debates in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012. We also explore campaign contexts in which incumbents are seeking reelection (2004 and 2012) as well as "open" races with no incumbent president engaged in general election debates. Finally, the programmatic research that we analyze allows for comparative assessments across different types of debates as we include viewer responses to both Democrat and Republican primary and general election debates, as well as vice presidential debates. Our principal goal is to explore "empirical intersections" found in the replicated studies that make up our combined analyses, allowing us to identify relationships and patterns on which we might begin to identify "general laws" and build theories of campaign debate effects (Benoit & Holbert, 2008, p. 616).


For many, the central question regarding a presidential debate's usefulness is whether or not debate viewing affects citizens' vote choice. On this question, the extant research points to very little change in voting intention following exposure to general election presidential debates (e.g., Benoit, McKinney, & Holbert, 2001; Benoit et al., 2003; Katz & Feldman, 1962; McKinney & Carlin, 2004). As political scientist Thomas Holbrook (1996) notes,

The perception of most [debate] viewers is colored by their political predispositions going into the debate ... [and] the single best predictor of which candidate a viewer thought won a given debate is that viewer's predebate vote choice. (p. 114)

Although debates may not alter the voting preferences of the vast majority of previously committed viewers, other studies have found that among undecided, conflicted, or weakly committed voters, debates do help form voting preference or even change candidate selection (e.g., Chaffee & Choe, 1980; Geer, 1988; McKinney, 1994). In fact, Chaffee (1978) concluded from his analysis of the 1960 and 1976 presidential debates that influence on voters' candidate choice depends largely on the contextual dynamics of a given campaign, including the particular candidates engaged in debate. Chaffee (1978) identified four specific situations in which voters are most likely to find debates useful: (a) when at lest one of the candidates is relatively unknown, (b) when many voters are undecided, (c) when the race appears close, and (d) when party allegiances are weak.

In our study's combined analysis, consisting of both primary and general election presidential and vice presidential debates across four election cycles (2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012), we examine debate viewers' candidate vote preference with the following question:

RQ1: What effect does viewing a presidential debate have on vote choice?

While general election presidential debates typically induce very little change in voter preference, a number of studies have found that primary debates have much greater effects on viewers (e.g., Benoit, McKinney, & Stephenson, 2002; McKinney, Kaid, & Robertson, 2001; Wall, Golden, &James, 1988; Yawn, Ellsworth, Beatty, & Kahn, 1988). As Kennamer and Chaffee (1982) conclude, "What appears clear ... is that the very early [campaign] phase is characterized by widespread lack of information among those who are not following the campaign closely, and uncertainty even among those who are" (p. 647). Voters in a primary campaign season, therefore, are more likely to be seeking information that introduces them to potentially unknown candidates and information that helps clarify often subtle differences among primary campaign rivals. Based on past findings regarding primary debates and candidate vote choice, we hypothesize the following when comparing our study's primary and general election debate viewer responses:

H1: Primary debates have a greater effect on debate viewers' vote choice than general election debates.

Candidate Evaluation

A great deal of presidential debate research has found that debate exposure affects viewer perceptions of candidates (e.g., Benoit et al., 2003; Benoit et al., 2001; McKinney & Carlin, 2004; McKinney, Dudash, & Hodgkinson, 2003; Zhu, Milavsky, & Biswas, 1994). In their summary of numerous studies that examined the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, Katz and Feldman (1962) observed, "There is little doubt ... that the audience was busy analyzing the character of the contestants-their 'presentations of self'" (p. 195). Lanoue and Schrott (1991) also concluded from their analysis of subsequent general election presidential debates, "Viewers are far more likely to use debates to gain insight into each candidate's personality and character ... A superior 'personal' presentation appears to be more important to voters than accumulation of issue-oriented debating 'points'" (p. 96).

While much of the presidential debate research on candidate evaluations has been conducted with general campaign debates, a few studies have found that primary debate exposure produces significant changes in viewers' perceptions of candidates (Benoit et al., 2002; McKinney et al., 2001; Pfau, 1987). Yet, in terms of the relative change in debate viewers' candidate assessment, no research exists that directly compares general and primary debates' influence on candidate evaluation. On this point, as the research examining candidate choice reveals, it is during the early campaign phase and primary debate season that voters are still largely undecided and uninformed about the candidates, and thus, we might expect greater change in candidate evaluation during the primary period. Our study's combined analyses of both primary and general election debates across multiple election cycles allow us to compare primary and...

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