The 1960 presidential election between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy ushered in an advanced technique of democracy: the televised political debate. Since 1976, debates have accompanied every presidential election and have emerged as central events in presidential campaigns.
In their classic review of studies of the 1960 debates, Katz and Feldman explained that televised debates function to focus the public's attention on the national drama of the political campaign. During debates, candidates' political messages take shape through the power of television.
In an analysis of the 1976 debates, Sears and Chaffee wrote, "Debates seem to be much more attractive media events than are the usual one-sided partisan communications in that they are likely to draw much larger audiences". To this day, presidential debates continue to be among the most watched programs ever broadcast, far surpassing typical audience shares (Hellweg, Pfau, & Brydon, 1992). American voters watch or listen to political debates to learn about issues, to learn about personalities, to decide who to vote for, and to fulfill a sense of civic obligation (Sears & Chaffee, 1979).
The experimental research reported here focused on audience reactions to the third 1992 presidential debate between George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot. This study attempted to measure viewers' perceptions before, during, and after the debate and to distinguish effects based on the variables of channel (radio vs. TV) and exposure to network news commentary.
Since the first televised presidential debate in 1960, debate research has focused on three primary areas: (1) the effects of decided versus undecided voters; (2) the effects of viewers' perceptions on candidates' issues and images; (3) the effects of preexisting candidate preferences and party affiliation, especially concerning "who won" the debate (Bystrom, Roper, Gobetz, Massey, & Beall, 1991). Most research supports the position that debates affect viewers' decision-making in some way. Sears, Freedman, and O'Connor (1964) argued that the uncommitted voter is open to a great deal of influence while watching televised presidential debates. In 1983, an ABC news poll confirmed that a large portion (58 percent) of the voting age public claim that they rely on debates more often than television news or candidate advertisements for decision-making.
In summarizing the effects of the 1960 debates between Kennedy and Nixon, Katz and Feldman (1962) found that debates reinforced partisan interests and helped undecided voters select a preferred candidate. This research on voting behavior helped to dispel the myth of the "independent voter:" the ideal citizen who does not make up his mind until election eve. After viewing the debate, undecided voters determined who they perceived as the winner and adopted a voting preference for a particular candidate (Katz & Feldman, 1962). Roberts (1979) reconfirmed these findings by determining that subjects who had trouble deciding for whom to vote failed to use televised debates as an information source.
In addition, Becker, McCombs, and McLeod (1975) discovered that voters who viewed the debates on a regular basis were the most likely to change their initial preferences and to make final voting decisions after the debate ended. Moreover, a study by Biocca and David (1988) indicated that undecided voters take an active role in the decision-making process. Using continuous automated response dials, these researchers determined that undecided voters gave both Bush and Dukakis the most favorable ratings when the two candidates discussed campaign issues.
In the 1960 election, four televised debates were held between the two candidates. According to Hellweg, Pfau, and Brydon (1992), television presented opposing images of the two candidates: "This was due to Nixon's pallid complexion, use of a gray suit against a similarly colored background, refusal to wear makeup, and weight loss after hospitalization, in stark contrast to John Kennedy's youthful look and athletic appearance (see, for example, Kirkpatrick, 1979; Mazo, Moos, Hoffman, & Wheeler, 1962; Mickelson, 1972; Siepmann, 1977; Tiemens, 1978; and White, 1961)". …