Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Newspaper Coverage of Presidential Primary Debates

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Newspaper Coverage of Presidential Primary Debates

Article excerpt

Televised presidential campaign debates are an important component of the modern presidential campaign. Political debates have several important advantages over other media. First, they give the electorate an opportunity to compare the major candidates "head-to-head" as they discuss the same topics at the same time. Second, Jamieson (1987) commented on the length of these discourses: "As messages running an hour or longer, debates offer a level of contact with candidates clearly unmatched in spot ads and news segments.... the debates offer the most extensive and serious view of the candidates available to the electorate" (p. 28). Third, candidates (and their advisors) prepare extensively for these events. Nevertheless, unexpected questions or unanticipated statements from an opponent are capable of provoking a more spontaneous--and perhaps more accurate--view of the candidates than is possible with highly scripted speeches or television spots with scripts and the opportunity for multiple takes.

Although most scholarly attention has been focused on the general election campaign, we should not neglect the primary campaign. Primaries and caucuses have been increasingly important in recent years (Davis, 1997; Kendall, 2000). Candidates actively develop and disseminate messages to millions of voters in primaries. Furthermore, in some years with weak candidates (e.g., Bush in 1992), in a real sense the primary campaign may essentially determine the outcome of the election by deciding who receives the nomination and is entitled to challenge the weak opponent. For example, Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 1992 so he could challenge, and defeat, President George Bush in the general election. However, it is possible that one or more of the other Democrats (e.g., Paul Tsongas, Bob Kerrey, Jerry Brown) could also have defeated Bush. If so, then the Democratic primary ultimately decided the election by determining who had the chance to face Bush in the general election. Clearly, the primary phase, and the discourse produced in it, merits scholarly attention.

Unlike presidential debates in the general campaign phase, which have been studied extensively (e.g., Benoit & Wells, 1996; Bishop, Meadow, & Jackson-Beeck, 1978; Bitzer & Rueter, 1980; Carlin & McKinney, 1994; Coleman, 2000; Friedenberg, 1994, 1997; Hellweg, Pfau, M., & Brydon, 1992; Hinck, 1993; Jamieson & Birdsell, 1988; Kraus, 1962, 1979, 2000; Lanoue & Schrott, 1991; Martel, 1983; Schroeder, 2000), debates in the primary phase have been unjustly slighted. In fact, the first presidential debate, broadcast on radio, occurred in 1948 between two Republican candidates, Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey (see Kane, 1987), twelve years before the Nixon-Kennedy debates. Furthermore, John Kennedy tuned up for the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates by facing fellow-Democrat Hubert Humphrey in a debate in West Virginia (Berquist, 1960). Primary debates occurred in three years without general debates (1956, 1968, 1972) and in the last four campaigns primary debates have outnumbered general debates by six to one (Benoit, Pier, Brazeal, McHale, Klyukovksi, & Airne, 2002). Clearly, much primary debate discourse is disseminated to the public.

Of course, fewer people are likely to watch a primary than a general debate. This becomes a smaller factor when one considers that the potential audience for a general debate includes all voters in the United States. However, in an important sense the audience for, say, a New Hampshire Republican primary debate consists only of the registered Republican voters in New Hampshire, so the audience for a primary debate need not be as large to potentially make a difference. Furthermore, a meta-analysis revealed that the effects of primary debates on viewers are significantly larger than the effects of general debates (Benoit, Hansen, & Verser, 2003). This is probably because the candidates who participate in primary debates (in mostly January and February) are much less well known than those who debate in the Fall campaign. …

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