Audience Recall of Issues and Image in Congressional Debates

By Hullett, Craig R.; Louden, Allan D. | Argumentation and Advocacy, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Audience Recall of Issues and Image in Congressional Debates

Hullett, Craig R., Louden, Allan D., Argumentation and Advocacy

His rhetoric is as empty as a walnut that a squirrel has condemned. Response of Audience Member to 5th District Congressional Debate, Winston-Salem, NC

A focal point of the research and corresponding argument surrounding political debates concerns what the voters learn from the viewing experience. In academic circles and among practitioners, the controversy regarding the worth of political debates remains intense. Although large numbers of voters watch this increasingly common campaign event, the value and nature of citizen learning remain uncertain(1). A general consensus seems to have emerged among academics that voters "learn" from viewing political debates by attending to issue messages from the candidates and elaborating on their images of the candidates. Many existent models, however, seek to demonstrate that voters remember either issue or image information. A few theorists acknowledge that voters may integrate issue and image judgments, but little has been done to discern the nature of combined information acquisition.

Unfortunately, most of the literature examining political debates regards image-based information with disdain. Authors generally hold that issues are the "right-stuff" of decision making, the pertinent reasons associated with proper democratic participation, whereas image is devalued as extraneous character judgments (e.g., Jamieson & Birdsell, 1988; Zhu, Milavsky, & Biswas, 1994). Some inconclusive research suggests that there may be differences in receptivity to candidates' statements according to voter allegiance, but to date little research has tested whether image perceptions indicate a lack of knowledge about the candidates' statements. Also, although voters' perceptions of the candidates are often reliably sorted into the image/issue dichotomy, there is a shortage of inquiry regarding whether these categories are as clearly opposed in voters' minds as they are represented in academic discussion. In this study, we sought to discover: 1) whether voters' party affiliations were related to their overall learning from the candidates; 2) whether voters' tendencies toward image or issue perceptions were related to their overall learning from the candidates; and 3) how image and issue are interrelated in the voters' minds.


Some argue that learning from debates reflects the value that the voters place on the issues discussed. Judd and Kulik (1980) claim that people, in general, are more likely to recall arguments they have heard when their views about those arguments are highly polarized toward either agreement or disagreement with the issues. This heightened learning stems from the fact that people are typically more receptive to information they perceive as important (Judd & Kulik, 1980).

Current research conflicts concerning whether viewers of debates are entirely open to the information presented by both candidates (Hellweg, Pfau, & Brydon, 1992). Carter (1962) found that those who watched the Kennedy-Nixon debates similarly recalled the arguments presented by both their preferred and the opposing candidate. The only significant differences in recall of the two candidates' arguments occurred when the viewers either discounted the effectiveness of both candidates' arguments or were inattentive to the debates (Carter, 1962). Hagner and Rieselbach (1978) reported that some viewers of the Carter-Ford debates were receptive to both candidates' arguments; twenty percent of the viewers converted their allegiance from one candidate to the other. Those who converted, however, typically had weaker voting convictions than those whose votes followed their previous preferences. Others have found evidence of selective and greater recall for preferred candidate's arguments (Bothwell & Brigham, 1993). Still, other contextual variables (e.g., how informed viewers are) have been advanced to explain audience reception to debate information (Hellweg et al.

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Audience Recall of Issues and Image in Congressional Debates


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