Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

All Knowledge Is Not Created Equal: Knowledge Effects and the 2012 Presidential Debates

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

All Knowledge Is Not Created Equal: Knowledge Effects and the 2012 Presidential Debates

Article excerpt

Decades of research have confirmed that debates increase viewer knowledge about the issue stands of the candidates (e.g., Benoit, Hansen, and Verser 2003). However, the conditions under which viewers learn are less well understood. In this article, we examine how differences in the context of information in presidential debates affect both who learns from such debates and what they learn. We ask three research questions regarding learning from exposure to the 2012 general election presidential debates: (1) Did these debates increase knowledge of the content discussed in them? (2) Were viewers more likely to learn about issues and matters relevant to the 2012 presidential election when one candidate challenged the other's view or when the candidate's statement was not contested? (3) Does learning occur at the same rate regardless of viewer political predispositions, or did confirmation bias determine whether and which individuals learned from the debates?

Issue Knowledge and "Correct" Voting

For a representative democracy to work, citizens must be able to cast a "correct vote" (Lau and Redlawsk 1997), one in line with their policy preferences. In a world in which presidential campaigns do at times mislead (see Jackson and Jamieson 2007), citizens may vote for a candidate on the supposition that their positions align when in fact they do not (see Waldman and Jamieson 2006). In 2008, for example, the Obama campaign used targeted radio ads to deceptively cast Senator John McCain as opposed to federal funding for stem-cell research (see Kenski, Hardy, and Jamieson 2010). If a stem-cell issue voter voted against McCain based on this deceptive message, then an "incorrect vote" was cast.

Because most of us do not personally know national political actors, we rely on media and campaign events to provide the necessary information to cast a "correct vote." One important function of presidential campaigns, then, is to inform voters of candidate policy stands and of other factual information that is relevant to the election. In our system of government, this function is central because, as Gans (2003) wrote, "The country's democracy may belong directly or indirectly to its citizens, but the democratic process can only be truly meaningful if these citizens are informed" (1). Debates offer a unique opportunity for voters to gain such information.

Debates and Learning

Since incumbent president and Republican nominee Gerald R. Ford challenged Democrat Jimmy Carter to a series of nationally televised debates in 1976, broadcast debates have become standard campaign events in U.S. politics. These quadrennial events demand an unmatched level of accountability of those seeking public office. Research on debate viewing effects has focused primarily on political learning and shifts in vote intentions (e.g., Benoit and Hansen 2004; Chaffee 1978; Jamieson and Adasiewicz 2000). We focus on the former.

Past studies have consistently linked debates viewing with higher levels of political knowledge. A meta-analysis of 18 studies on debates from 1976 to 2000 (total N--7,202) found a mean weighted correlation coefficient of 0.256 between debates and political knowledge, suggesting that on average, debate viewing has a substantial impact on viewer learning of the candidates' policy positions (Benoit, Hansen, and Verser 2003). Some research suggests that debates increase issue salience and have an agenda-setting effect (Becker et al. 1978; Benoit and Hansen 2004). Benoit and Hansen (2004) examined the 1976, 1984, 1996, and 2000 data in the American National Election Studies (ANES) and found that debate watchers cited more issues in their evaluations of the candidates than did nondebate watchers. Consistent with these findings, we hypothesize,

Hypothesis 1: Exposure to the 2012 presidential debates will increase accurate knowledge of the issues and matters discussed in the debates themselves. …

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