Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

A Functional Analysis of the 2006 Canadian and 2007 Australian Election Debates

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

A Functional Analysis of the 2006 Canadian and 2007 Australian Election Debates

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

This study replicates past research on political leaders debates (Benoit, 2007; Benoit & Klyukovski, 2006; Benoit & Sheafer, 2006; Benoit & Wen, & Yu, 2007; Lee & Benoit, 2005), extending that work to examine electoral debates in two countries with parliamentary systems of government, Canada's 2006 election and Australia's 2007 campaign. Debates during campaigns for political office are a well established medium for candidates to reach voters. A plethora of democratic countries have utilized this message form to educate voters, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Israel, New Zealand, Scotland, South Korea, Sweden, Poland, Taiwan, The Ukraine, and The United States.

Debates are an important campaign message form because they possess several advantages other message forms lack. First, debates present considerable information to voters. Televised debates are much longer than other common messages forms, such as TV spots. Accordingly they afford candidates a greater opportunity to provide information to voters and to distinguish themselves from opponents. Second, the debate format allows voters to compare leading candidates' character and issue positions directly. Third, candidates present information extemporaneously, and at times must provide impromptu answers to unexpected questions or comments from opponents. Although candidates do prepare for their debate appearances, voters may obtain a more candid view of each candidate than is possible with highly scripted message forms such as stump speeches or TV spots (Schrott, 1990). Debates also generate both media attention and political discussion among many voters concerning the candidates and their policies, which broadens their potential influence.

Televised electoral debates are capable of influencing audiences. Benoit, Hansen, and Verser (2003) used meta-analysis to establish that watching presidential debates created issue knowledge, influenced perceptions of the character of the candidate, and could change vote choice. Lanoue (1991) found that the 1984 Canadian leadership debates influenced voting behavior. Blais and Boyer (1996), investigating the 1988 Canadian debates, determined that watching debates altered vote choice and voters' perceptions. Kang and Juang (1999) observed that the South Korean 1997 televised presidential debates had an impact on voters. Debates allowed the candidates to further develop their images, and in some cases alter prevailing negative opinions. Eighty percent of these South Korean respondents reported that the debates influenced their vote decision. Maier and Faas (2003) reported that the 2002 German debates influenced the images of the candidates. Walker and Kang (2004) argued that the 2002 election in Taiwan was decided, in large part, due to the fresh image presented by Roh and the Millennium Democratic Party and the influence of technology, specifically debate viewing. Nearly 66 percent of viewers who watched the debate claimed that it influenced their decision and 37 percent claimed that debate viewing altered their vote choice. Blais, Gidengil, Nadean, and Nevitte (2003) concluded that the 2003 Canadian debates were "critical in the Conservative surge" (p. 49). A study of the German debates of 2002 provided evidence that acclaims and commonplaces elicited unanimous support, whereas attacks, statements of fact, and political plans tended to polarize the audience. So, studies of debate effects around the world conclude that this message form can affect voters.

Debates also have shown potential to increase political efficacy and promote civic engagement (Chafee, 1978; McLeod et al., 1979). Given the fact that political debates tend to attract large audiences--e.g., half of eligible Canadian voters watched the 1979 debate (LeDuc & Price, 1985), 59% watched the Israeli debate in 1996 (Blum-Kulka & Liebes, 2000), and 65% watched one of the German Chancellor debates in 2002 (Faas & Maier, 2004)--they have a tremendous potential to inform and influence voters. …

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