Issue Ownership in Primary and General Presidential Debates

Article excerpt

Televised presidential debates have become a fixture in presidential campaigns (Friedenberg, 1994). General campaign de bates have been held in 8 general campaigns (1960, 1976-2000) and primary debates have occurred in 13 presidential elections, beginning in 1948 when Republicans Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen debated on-radio in Oregon (Benoit, Pier, Brazeal, McHale, Klyukovski, & Airne, 2002). Presidential de bates have also been held in other countries (see, e.g., Coleman, 2000).

There are several reasons political debates are important campaign events. First, debates present the leading candidates together, discussing the same topics. This facilitates comparison of candidates by voters. A second reason debates matter is their length: 90 minutes for general election debates (after the four 60 minute debates of 1960). This provides voters with an extended opportunity to hear the candidates. Although there are more television spots than debates, each debate is far longer than any individual ad (which are mostly 30 seconds in recent campaigns). Third, although the number who watch debates varies, millions of voters watch general debates. The number of primary debates (22 in 2000) helps make up for the smaller audiences for those events. The size of the audience for presidential debates means they have a capacity for influence. Furthermore, the face-to-face nature of debates provides candidates a chance to reply to opponents (refuting allegedly false attacks, puncturing unreasonable claims); such clash could be beneficial for voters. Finally, although candidates prepare extensively for debates, questions or statements from opponents that have not been anticipated can offer voters a more spontaneous (and possibly less contrived) impression of the candidates than they can obtain from other messages. The Racine Group (2002) concluded that "while journalists and scholars display varying degrees of cynicism about the debates, few deny that viewers find them useful and almost no one doubts that they play an important role in national campaigns" (p. 901). Metaanalysis confirms that debates can instill issue knowledge, influence perceptions of the candidates' character, and influence vote preference (Benoit, Hansen, & Verser, 2003). Clearly, political debates merit scholarly attention.

We have begun to accumulate a store of knowledge about presidential debates (see, e.g., Benoit & Wells, 1996; Bishop, Meadow, & Jackson-Beeck, 1979; Carlin & McKinney, 1994; Coleman, 2000; Friedenberg, 1994; Hellweg, Pfau, & Brydon, 1992; Hinck, 1993; Jamieson & Birdsell, 1988; Kraus, 1962, 1979, 2000; Lemert et al., 1991; Martel, 1983; Racine Group, 2002; Swerdlow, 1984, 1987). We know, for example, that presidential debates focus more on policy or issues than on character or image. General debates (1960, 1976-2000), on average, discuss policy in 75% of statements and character in the remaining 25%; primary debates (1948, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1980-2000) stress character more than general debates, but still policy accounts for 63% of utterances and character 37% in primary debates (Benoit et al., 2002). However, we do not have a clear understanding of which specific issues are addressed in these messages.

Understanding the issues discussed in debates is important because evidence indicates that issues are important to voters. Benoit (2003) reported public opinion poll data from 1976-2000 (every year from which data were available) reveals that more voters report that the most important determinant of their vote for president is issues rather than character. Content analysis of presidential primary and general debate messages found that candidates who discussed policy more than their opponents were significantly more likely to win the election (Benoit, 2003). Furthermore, Holbert, Benoit, and McKinney (2002) found that the most important variable which distinguished supporters of Bush and Gore before watching a presidential debate in 2000 was ideology; after watching the debate, the most important discriminator was how close of Bush's and Gore's positions on the issues were to the viewer's own issue position. …

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