Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Assessing the 1992 Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates: The Public Rationale

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Assessing the 1992 Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates: The Public Rationale

Article excerpt

Since the 1960 presidential debate, the scholarly community, media, and public have devoted substantial energy to determining the winners and losers of presidential and vice presidential debates. This preoccupation has prompted criticism because it diverts attention from the substance available in public debates (Berquist & Golden, 1981; Jamieson & Birdsell, 1988). Notwithstanding the merits of such criticism, voters continue to assign victory and defeat in even the closest and most ambiguous debate contests (Sears & Chaffee, 1979).

The reasons voters use to explain their choices of winners and losers in presidential and vice presidential debates remain unclear. Numerous studies address whether personal attributes/presidential skills weigh more heavily than a discussion of the policy issues in the decision-making calculus of voters (see, for example, Berquist & Golden, 1981; Glass, 1985; Miller & MacKuen, 1979). The tendency to reduce the breadth of rationales employed by the electorate into a dichotomous framework (i.e., issue vs. image), however, prevents a more thorough understanding of the reasoning processes of the public.

Vancil and Pendell (1984) take a first step toward broadening the understanding of voter rationales in their analysis of the 1980 Carter-Reagan presidential debate. Basing their results on a survey of the presidential debate literature, a post hoc review of a limited telephone survey, and their own conceptual analysis, they propose six criteria for assessing performance in political debates. These include the pre-debate candidate preference, consistency with viewer positions on the issues, superior skills of advocacy, superior presidential personality, profiting from a major blunder of the opponent, and the media's choice of winner.

The methodology used in Vancil and Pendell's telephone survey, however, limited the public's responses to predetermined options spawned from previous research findings. For example, viewers were asked, "In viewing the debate between Presidential candidates, do you think it is most important to find out the candidate's stands on the issues, or to find out which candidate has the personality and leadership qualities a President should have?". While a complete accounting of the questions asked of respondents is not available, the weaknesses inherent in the study's methodology prompt even Vancil and Pendell to admit that the criteria they identify do not exhaust the possibilities.

By providing potential voters an open-ended opportunity to explain their reasons for choosing winners and losers in the first 1992 presidential debate and the 1992 vice presidential debate, this study expands understanding about the electorate's schemas. These debates constituted substantial campaign events as eighty-one million viewers watched the October 11 presidential debate and seventy-six million Americans observed the October 13 vice presidential debate (Carmody, 1992).

In addition to discovering the reasons given by the public for choosing winners and losers, this study seeks to determine if various subgroups of the electorate use different reasons for judging debate performance. Previous research has indicated that educational status (Glass, 1985), party affiliation (Campbell, et al., 1960), audience predisposition (Leuthold & Valentine, 1982; Sears & Chaffee, 1979; Sigelman & Sigelman, 1984), and media coverage (Lang & Lang, 1978; Lanoue & Schrott, 1991; Lowery, Bridges, & Barefield, 1990; Miller & MacKuen, 1979) influence voter perceptions of candidate performance, but none has specifically addressed whether the rationales for choosing winners and losers varies according to these factors. This study analyzes whether viewership of the debates, demographic groupings, party affiliation, media usage, and choice of particular candidates as winners or losers constitute subgroups that use different reasoning in assessing candidate performance. …

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