White Paper on Televised Political Campaign Debates

Article excerpt

The Racine Group *

PREFACE

In the Fall of 2000, with the Bush-Gore debates freshly in memory, the American Forensic Association's Publications Committee and the National Communication Association's Research Board launched a collaborative initiative to facilitate greater cooperation in research on televised presidential campaign debates and to promote and make more usable the diverse range of existing Communication research on the subject. The project convened a select group of Communication scholars representing both the humanities and social sciences. Their research interests ran the gamut from critical analyses of rhetorical strategies in specific debates to the trans-campaign effects of debates on such matters as voting behavior, image formation, and attitude change, and from the role that the media play in shaping the debates and their interpretations to the way that the debates, beyond their function in campaigns, influence general conceptions of democratic norms, cultural practices, and perceptions of leadership.

During the summer, participants circulated position papers concerning the state, implications, and resource needs of Communication scholarship on presidential debates, and, in September of 2001, they arrived in southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois. Approximately half of the group contributed to a public program held at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. This program was endorsed by the Wisconsin Humanities Council, the local League of Women Voters, and the Edison Initiative, as well as UWM's College of Letters and Science and Communication Department; it subsequently was broadcast on public radio station WUWM. Approximately half of the participating scholars gave presentations at a colloquium at Northwestern University sponsored by the Department of Communication Studies. On September 21, the two sub-groups converged at the Racine Marriott, halfway between Milwaukee and Evanston, for two days of intensive work. The goal was to produce a White Paper that surveyed the current state of Communicat ion research on televised presidential campaign debates, secured a foundation for coordinating and promoting the discipline's under-appreciated, but wide-ranging contributions, and suggested means of expanding the scope and enhancing the quality of this body of scholarship. Primary audiences anticipated for this White Paper were those outside our discipline who have a stake in better understanding the communicative dimensions of such debates and those inside the field who are interested in developing new research or teaching projects.

Preliminary results of the Racine conference were presented at a public panel at the 2001 NCA convention in Atlanta. Revisions were made in light of the ensuing discussion with the audience, and further editing and discussion produced the final product printed below. This White Paper is not definitive but is a first attempt at codifying, encouraging, and stressing the importance of Communication research--and particularly cooperative, multi-methodological Communication research--on televised campaign debates. We intend to follow this paper with a presentation/reaction session at the 2002 NCA Convention in New Orleans.

INTRODUCTION

Because they command the attention of the public, the media, and the candidates, televised political campaign debates have become a permanent aspect of America's political landscape. The first nationally broadcast debate, the Kennedy-Nixon encounter of 1960, attracted an audience nearly equivalent to the final game of the 1959 World Series, which to that point had been the most watched event in television history. (1) The debates between Carter and Ford in 1976, the next set of televised debates, were viewed by well over eighty percent of the television audience, (2) and presidential debates invariably command the largest audience for any campaign event. …