Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Presidential Debates, Partisan Motivations, and Political Interest

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Presidential Debates, Partisan Motivations, and Political Interest

Article excerpt

Presidential campaign debates remain one of the last opportunities for candidates to directly present themselves and their policies in a competitive setting to the citizenry. How do people evaluate candidates in presidential debates? The general consensus is that debates matter but only by reinforcing attitudes that the audience holds prior to the debate (Klapper 1960; Kraus 2000; Sears and Whitney 1973). In short, debates are seen as reinforcing rather than changing prior attitudes among the audience (Abramowitz 1978; Benoit and Hansen 2004; Holbert 2005; Sigelman and Sigelman 1984). Despite the valuable information gleaned from these studies, a significant and consequential question has largely been ignored: who is most likely to be affected by debates and engage in attitude reinforcement? This is a critical question because studies to date assume that, other than partisan differences, effects are uniform across partisans; yet I argue and show this is not the case. The heterogeneity in reinforcement effects has critical normative implications for the study of political communication and public opinion formation.

The purpose of this article is to achieve a more direct and nuanced understanding of how the citizenry evaluate presidential debates. This is achieved through two strategies. First, by employing motivated reasoning theory, I am able to predict which individuals are most likely to demonstrate the reinforcement effects, namely, the most politically interested individuals. Second, unlike prior work, I overcome major methodological limitations, as I will discuss, by using a more ideal data set to explore debate effects. Specifically, I explore effects among nationally representative panel data from the first presidential debate in 2008.

Debate Evaluations

Much research is dedicated to unraveling the sources of presidential vote choices. Studies isolate the importance of social forces and partisan attachments (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee 1954; Campbell et al. 1960). Other work emphasizes economic conditions (Markus 1988), candidate character and attributes (Glass 1985; Bishin, Stevens, and Wilson 2006), and issue positions (Goren 1997). While there is contention surrounding the sources of vote choice, there is a consensus that presidential campaigns have become more mediated and reliant upon media interpretations (Bucy and Graber 2007; Hallin 1994). One key exception is presidential campaign debates. The debates provide an opportunity for candidates to directly present themselves at length in a competitive context to the voting public. This prompts the question: how do debates impact evaluations of the candidates?

Research on campaign debates is substantial. (1) Much of the research examines how debates affect and influence evaluations of candidates. These studies focus on how the public processes the debate information and alter their perceptions and attitudes toward the candidates. This research suggests that the viewing public selectively attends to the information presented in the debates and reinforces prior attitudes and opinions (Hillygus and Jackman 2003; Kraus 1962, 2000; Sears and Whitney 1973; Wall, Golden, and James 1988). Several scholars assert that debates are more likely to strengthen existing preferences and reinforce predispositions than alter preferences (Benoit and Hansen 2004; Sigelman and Sigelman 1984). Other work examines selective perception and finds that presidential debates can persuade voters to adopt the positions taken by their preferred candidate (Abramowitz 1978). Notably absent from these studies is an analysis of who is most likely to reinforce their attitudes. The aforementioned debate studies often treat prior attitudes as isolated independent variables that drive evaluations. In doing so, the studies assume that individuals belonging to a category are homogenous, which ignores the possibility that the influence of prior attitudes may be conditioned by individual characteristics. …

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