Effects of Presidential Debate Watching and Ideology on Attitudes and Knowledge

Article excerpt

Presidential debates have become an institutionalized part of the presidential campaign process. Since 1976, an expectation has developed that the candidates of the major parties will engage in presidential debates (see, e.g., Denton & Woodward, 1990; Friedenberg, 1994). Swerdlow observed in 1987 that "given the present ascendancy of campaign debates, there is every reason to believe that they will continue to flourish" (p. 14). Subsequent debates have strengthened this expectation. Because the election boils down to a simple choice between two (or three) candidates, there is a clear logic to this expectation: A simple way to make that choice is to learn each candidate's stance on the issues and to compare their personae.

Other scholars have recognized that presidential debates offer viewers the chance to see the major candidates in a face-to-face confrontation addressing the same topics (Benoit & Wells, 1996; Carlin, 1994; Hellweg, Pfau, & Brydon, 1992). Jamieson (1987) explained that "As messages running an hour or longer, debates offer a level of contact with candidates clearly unmatched in spot ads and news segments" (p. 28; see also Lamoureaux, Entrekin, & McKinney, 1994). Kraus (1988) argued that presidential debates "serve the majority of the electorate better than any other single campaign communication device that attempts to present both the candidates' personality and their positions on the issues" (p. 5). Furthermore, while candidates do prepare for the debates, voters may obtain a somewhat less contrived impression of the candidates than they can get from other, more tightly scripted kinds of campaign messages, like television spots.

We first review previous research on the effects of presidential debates. Then we describe our purpose - investigating the effects of watching the first 1996 presidential debate and of ideology on knowledge and attitudes - and our method. Finally, we report the results of this investigation and discuss the implications of this study.

EFFECTS OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES

The effects of presidential debates are a popular topic in the literature (see, e. …