Do the presidential primary debates matter? Measuring candidate speaking time and audience response during the 2012 primaries.

Author:Stewart, Patrick A.
Position:Polls and Elections - Report


Presidential debates, whether in the general election or during the preprimary and primary seasons, have long held a fascination for not just political junkies and the press corps, but also for the general public. These events often attain large viewing audiences hoping to not only catch glimpses of insight into their presumptive leaders' policy positions, but also to compare these competitors in terms of intelligence, personality, and values. While viewership might be diminished during primary debates, with mainly dedicated partisans paying close attention, these events can play a key role in defining who the major contenders for a party's nomination will be, leading to change in opinions toward, and support of, candidates among the undecided (Benoit, McKinney, and Stephenson 2002, 316; Fridkin et al. 2007; Lanoue and Schrott 1989; Yawn et al. 1998). However, as noted by Hillygus and Jackman (2003, 595) "the effect of a campaign event depends on previous preferences, partisan dispositions, and political context," a finding seen more specifically in debate audiences (Benoit and Hansen 2004; Benoit, McKinney, and Stephenson 2002; Lang and Lang 1978; Munro et al. 2002; Yawn et al. 1998).

Although policy positions certainly play a role in candidate assessment, during debates they take a back seat to viewer evaluation of candidate performance, with primary debates focusing on policy less and character more than general election debates (Benoit 2011). As a result, self-presentation and connection with the audience, both live at the debate venue and watching via mass media (Peifer and Holbert 2013), is important for conveying personality and character--of which nonverbal behavior plays an important role. Competing candidates walk a fine line between assertiveness and politeness toward their opponents (Bull and Wells 2002; Dailey, Hinck, and Hinck 2005; Pfau and Rang 1991; Seiter and Weger 2005; Seiter et al. 2010) in which mastery of their facial displays (Newton et al. 1987; Patterson et al. 1992; Stewart 2012; Stewart and Ford Dowe 2013; Stewart, Salter, and Mehu 2009; Sullivan and Masters 1988), body language (Dumitrescu, Gidengil, and Stolle 2015; Gentry and Duke 2009; Koppensteiner and Grammer 2010; Koppensteiner, Stephan, and Jaschke 2015; Kramer, Arend, and Ward 2010), and vocal behavior (Gentry and Duke 2009; Kalkhoff and Gregory 2008) plays a key role in viewer assessment.

Although research on nonverbal behavior by candidates, and how it communicates intelligence, personality, values and stress levels, is a burgeoning field (Bucy 2011; Bucy and Bradley 2004; Dumitrescu, Gidengil, and Stolle 2015; Grabe and Bucy 2009; Koppensteiner, Stephan, and Jaschke 2015), relatively little attention has been given to audience attention to the candidates and their response in the form of applause, laughter, and boos. (1) While other nonverbal cues can have an effect on the viewing audience, especially if greater attention is given the candidates in terms of their speaking time, perhaps more important for those watching the televised coverage is how the debate audiences react to the candidates. This is because primary debates, which by their nature involve in-group competition among the candidates for the mantle of leadership, may be seen as relying upon the mobilization of support from the audience that is audibly evidenced through laughter and applause. Lanoue and Schrott (1989, 305n.7) note in their analysis of a 1984 Democratic Party presidential primary debate "that the two candidates most often interrupted by applause and laughter in Dallas (Jackson and Gore) were the ones most often chosen by our subjects as having 'won' the debate." Furthermore, primary debates are much more raucous affairs than general election debates, with substantially more applause and laughter. Specifically, Stewart (2012) found nearly two and four times more audience laughter, respectively, in preprimary and primary debates when compared with the general election debates during the 2008 presidential election. This might be attributed to 1 not just tighter moderator control of the audience, but also potentially to the mixture of Republican and Democratic partisans, alongside independent audience members, with a resultant inhibition of social contagion with either laughter or applause.

In summary, primary debates play an important role with candidates attempting to define themselves as viable contenders for their party's presidential nomination through the mobilization of audible partisan support. Primary debates also present differences from general election debates, both thematically and structurally, that make them an important setting to study to gain insight concerning the nature of our political system and the choices it ultimately provides to general election voters.

The 2012 Republican primary provides an opportunity to explore the importance of candidate status on audience response during important early season debates. Specifically, the first three primaries of the Republican nomination battle, held in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida during the month of January, were key for defining the major contenders for the presidential candidacy. The front-loaded nature of the current primary system favors those early races almost to the point that the winners of the invisible primary, in which money plays a definitive role (Adkins and Dowdle 2002, 2008; Dowdle et al. 2013; Tolbert, Keller, and Donovan 2010), can be expected to dominate media attention and voting outcomes in these primaries, as well as the Iowa caucus starting the election season, yet may not necessarily reflect the demographic characteristics and policy preferences of the American populace (Panagopoulos 2010; Tolbert, Keller, and Donovan 2010).

In the week before each of these primaries, two debates involving all major candidates were held, providing six highly competitive meetings. While there were a total of 18 preprimary debates in 2011, and two more debates in late February and early March, this spate of six debates may be seen as definitive in terms of affecting the ultimate electoral outcome. I first consider which candidate obtains the most speaking time during the six primary debates as this structuring of attention may be seen as subtly informing the public which candidate is the most likely winner of that party's presidential nomination. In other words, I explore whether there is a connection between dominance of debate speaking time and electoral status. The second research question considers the connection primary debate audiences have with the contenders in terms of laughter and applause in response to the candidates' comments and statements. I do this with the understanding that underdog candidates have the potential to win over supporters by displaying aptitude stylistically and thematically with their partisan audiences, in turn changing their electoral position. Finally, I summarize my findings and their implications for not just future research, but also the role of mass media and debate audiences on electoral outcomes.

Dominance of Audience Attention by Presidential Candidates

First, by having more candidates than is the norm in general election debates, the structure of the debate and the resulting outcomes are altered. As pointed out by The Racine Group (2002, 205) "(M)ultiple candidate debates reduce the amount of time each candidate has to respond, the number of topics covered, depth of analysis, opportunities for defense as well as attack, and the direction of candidates' address. Primary debate formats often provide no opportunity for candidates answering at the beginning of a sequence to respond to the candidates who follow." In essence, candidates in primary debates are constrained in the way they showcase their leadership abilities by being unable to respond to policy particulars in depth. Instead, as pointed out by Lanoue and Schrott (1989, 301) "when issue positions are largely indistinguishable, perhaps image and style are the only reasonable bases on which to evaluate the candidates."

At the same time, the amount of time given to candidates is constrained relative to the number of contenders, with treatment differing based upon candidate electoral status. Candidate status may be derived from the results of caucuses and primaries, amount of financial support in their coffers, and credentials as a serious presidential contender based upon prior electoral experience, as was the case with Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012 (Dowdle et al. 2013). However, the ultimate indicator of a candidate's status as a serious candidate is arguably the attention he or she obtains from the mass media (Donovan and Hunsaker 2009). Dominance of attention is a well-established indicator of status and prestige within hierarchical social structures, whether with humans or other social animal species (Chance 1967; Mazur 2005; Salter 2007). Therefore, dominance of attention and the status and prestige it confers can be extended to the virtual face-to-face interaction of television and the new media (Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson 1994) and is seen as playing a major role in assessing candidate viability as political leaders (Grabe and Bucy 2009; Masters 1989). To be chosen as a leader, one must look and act like a viable leader; this in turn is preconditioned on having prospective followers paying attention (Haslam, Reicher, and Platow 2010; Van Vugt and Ahuja 2011). In our modern, wired world, it is the mass media paying attention for us and indicating which candidate is worthy of public attention.

A major factor behind dominance of attention is the affective connection between followers and a leader. Research to date has underscored the importance of emotional response to candidates for their political success with candidates eliciting positive emotional response from voters more likely to win support and thus elections (Brader 2006...

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