Presidential campaign debates remain one of the last opportunities for candidates to directly present themselves and their policies in a competitive setting to the citizenry. How do people evaluate candidates in presidential debates? The general consensus is that debates matter but only by reinforcing attitudes that the audience holds prior to the debate (Klapper 1960; Kraus 2000; Sears and Whitney 1973). In short, debates are seen as reinforcing rather than changing prior attitudes among the audience (Abramowitz 1978; Benoit and Hansen 2004; Holbert 2005; Sigelman and Sigelman 1984). Despite the valuable information gleaned from these studies, a significant and consequential question has largely been ignored: who is most likely to be affected by debates and engage in attitude reinforcement? This is a critical question because studies to date assume that, other than partisan differences, effects are uniform across partisans; yet I argue and show this is not the case. The heterogeneity in reinforcement effects has critical normative implications for the study of political communication and public opinion formation.
The purpose of this article is to achieve a more direct and nuanced understanding of how the citizenry evaluate presidential debates. This is achieved through two strategies. First, by employing motivated reasoning theory, I am able to predict which individuals are most likely to demonstrate the reinforcement effects, namely, the most politically interested individuals. Second, unlike prior work, I overcome major methodological limitations, as I will discuss, by using a more ideal data set to explore debate effects. Specifically, I explore effects among nationally representative panel data from the first presidential debate in 2008.
Much research is dedicated to unraveling the sources of presidential vote choices. Studies isolate the importance of social forces and partisan attachments (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee 1954; Campbell et al. 1960). Other work emphasizes economic conditions (Markus 1988), candidate character and attributes (Glass 1985; Bishin, Stevens, and Wilson 2006), and issue positions (Goren 1997). While there is contention surrounding the sources of vote choice, there is a consensus that presidential campaigns have become more mediated and reliant upon media interpretations (Bucy and Graber 2007; Hallin 1994). One key exception is presidential campaign debates. The debates provide an opportunity for candidates to directly present themselves at length in a competitive context to the voting public. This prompts the question: how do debates impact evaluations of the candidates?
Research on campaign debates is substantial. (1) Much of the research examines how debates affect and influence evaluations of candidates. These studies focus on how the public processes the debate information and alter their perceptions and attitudes toward the candidates. This research suggests that the viewing public selectively attends to the information presented in the debates and reinforces prior attitudes and opinions (Hillygus and Jackman 2003; Kraus 1962, 2000; Sears and Whitney 1973; Wall, Golden, and James 1988). Several scholars assert that debates are more likely to strengthen existing preferences and reinforce predispositions than alter preferences (Benoit and Hansen 2004; Sigelman and Sigelman 1984). Other work examines selective perception and finds that presidential debates can persuade voters to adopt the positions taken by their preferred candidate (Abramowitz 1978). Notably absent from these studies is an analysis of who is most likely to reinforce their attitudes. The aforementioned debate studies often treat prior attitudes as isolated independent variables that drive evaluations. In doing so, the studies assume that individuals belonging to a category are homogenous, which ignores the possibility that the influence of prior attitudes may be conditioned by individual characteristics. (2)
The extant debate literature is not only limited by often ignoring moderating individual effects, but it also faces data constraints. The studies attempt to disentangle the mechanisms through which people process the debate information, but most are plagued by methodological and data limitations that inhibit direct evidence of the reinforcement effects. Several studies employ cross-sectional data that measure prior attitudes at the same time as debate evaluations (Benoit and Hansen 2004; Sigelman and Sigelman 1984). Other studies are restricted to highly limited samples (Abramowitz 1978). Arguing that debate viewing acts as partisan reinforcement, Holbert (2005) employs panel data to determine whether debate viewing impacts vote choice. However, the post-debate assessment is not taken until after the election (a month after the debate aired), and it only concentrates on vote choice. Thus, there are few tests of the direct and immediate effects of the debate on candidate evaluations and perceptions. Lanoue (1992) also uses panel data, but the debate analyzed occurred only one week prior to the election. Thus, it is likely that the viewing public had already been exposed to the candidates and their positions for an extended time period before watching the debate, making the prior attitudes difficult to assess.
Although most research on debates suggests that the citizenry tends to selectively perceive debates and reinforce previously held opinions, direct evidence is sparse. The causal inferences of previous studies are constrained by data and methodology. More importantly, each of the studies is limited in its theoretical precision concerning who is most likely to be affected by the debates. It is this last point that I turn to in the next section.
Ideas of reinforcement and selective attention have long been noted in analyses of mass communication and debates (Kraus 1962; Sears and Whitney 1973). Much of the explanatory foundation of previous work on debate evaluations is rooted in a psychological theory of cognitive consistency (Abelson et al. 1968; Abramowitz 1978; Lanoue 1992; Sigelman and Sigelman 1984). In discussing this theory, Abramowitz (1978, 681) states, "there is a strain toward consistency among attitudes. Inconsistency tends 2 to produce psychological discomfort; therefore, inconsistent attitudes tend to be unstable." Scholars use cognitive consistency to explain why presidential debates reinforce existing predispositions rather than substantially change opinions. Sigelman and Sigelman (1984, 627) assert that, "[i]n any event, it is clear that the public does not approach presidential debates cognitively unencumbered and determined to weigh the evidence even-handedly." While cognitive consistency theory has produced fruitful insights into how people evaluate debates, it provides little theoretical precision. More specifically, it fails to adequately explain who is most likely to engage in attitude reinforcement.
In recent years, an abundance of evidence has bolstered support for a theory of motivated reasoning (Druckman and Bolsen 2011; Kim, Taber, and Lodge 2010; Kunda 1990; Lodge and Taber 2013; Lord, Ross, and Lepper 1979; Redlawsk, Civettini, and Emmerson 2010; Slothuus and de Vreese 2010; Taber and Lodge 2006; Taber, Cann, and Kucsova 2009). In many respects, motivated reasoning is an extension of research on reinforcement effects, selective exposure, and cognitive consistency and dissonance theory (Festinger 1957; Heider 1946; Kunda 1990). However, motivated reasoning offers novel insights and allows for more explanatory and predictive precision by disentangling the mechanisms through which people process information. Lodge and Taber (2005) discuss motivated reasoning and suggest that individuals develop affect, attitudes, and motivations concerning various topics over time, and these motivations influence how people process new information. That is, the theory asserts that an individual's prior attitudes toward people, groups, and issues will bias how he or she processes new information concerning those topics. While prior attitudes can be manifest in different forms, in its political applications, these prior attitudes and motivations often come in the form of partisan attachments and goals (Druckman. Peterson, and Slothuus 2013; Gaines et al. 2007; Groenendyk 2013; Lavine and Steenbergen 2012; Slothuus and de Vreese 2010; Taber and Lodge 2006). Partisan motivated reasoning provides a theoretical foundation for what Campbell et al. (1960, 130) refer to as a partisan "perceptual screen" "though which the individual tends to see what is favorable to his partisan orientation."
Motivated reasoning prompts several hypotheses (Lodge and Taber 2013; Taber and Lodge 2006). First, there is expected to be a prior attitude effect where individuals view evidence congruent with prior attitudes (or information that buttresses their partisan attachment) as more compelling. The theory suggests that this occurs through a confirmation and disconfirmation bias. That is, individuals will seek out confirming arguments and counterargue incongruent information, which results in a reinforcement of prior attitudes. In turn, these effects tend to result in polarization and more extreme attitudes.
Finally, the theory asserts that the reinforcement effects are heightened for the most politically sophisticated individuals and those with the strongest priors. Because of their high levels of political knowledge, politically sophisticated and interested individuals are better able to counterargue information inconsistent with their priors...