Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Do the Presidential Primary Debates Matter? Measuring Candidate Speaking Time and Audience Response during the 2012 Primaries

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Do the Presidential Primary Debates Matter? Measuring Candidate Speaking Time and Audience Response during the 2012 Primaries

Article excerpt

Introduction

Presidential debates, whether in the general election or during the preprimary and primary seasons, have long held a fascination for not just political junkies and the press corps, but also for the general public. These events often attain large viewing audiences hoping to not only catch glimpses of insight into their presumptive leaders' policy positions, but also to compare these competitors in terms of intelligence, personality, and values. While viewership might be diminished during primary debates, with mainly dedicated partisans paying close attention, these events can play a key role in defining who the major contenders for a party's nomination will be, leading to change in opinions toward, and support of, candidates among the undecided (Benoit, McKinney, and Stephenson 2002, 316; Fridkin et al. 2007; Lanoue and Schrott 1989; Yawn et al. 1998). However, as noted by Hillygus and Jackman (2003, 595) "the effect of a campaign event depends on previous preferences, partisan dispositions, and political context," a finding seen more specifically in debate audiences (Benoit and Hansen 2004; Benoit, McKinney, and Stephenson 2002; Lang and Lang 1978; Munro et al. 2002; Yawn et al. 1998).

Although policy positions certainly play a role in candidate assessment, during debates they take a back seat to viewer evaluation of candidate performance, with primary debates focusing on policy less and character more than general election debates (Benoit 2011). As a result, self-presentation and connection with the audience, both live at the debate venue and watching via mass media (Peifer and Holbert 2013), is important for conveying personality and character--of which nonverbal behavior plays an important role. Competing candidates walk a fine line between assertiveness and politeness toward their opponents (Bull and Wells 2002; Dailey, Hinck, and Hinck 2005; Pfau and Rang 1991; Seiter and Weger 2005; Seiter et al. 2010) in which mastery of their facial displays (Newton et al. 1987; Patterson et al. 1992; Stewart 2012; Stewart and Ford Dowe 2013; Stewart, Salter, and Mehu 2009; Sullivan and Masters 1988), body language (Dumitrescu, Gidengil, and Stolle 2015; Gentry and Duke 2009; Koppensteiner and Grammer 2010; Koppensteiner, Stephan, and Jaschke 2015; Kramer, Arend, and Ward 2010), and vocal behavior (Gentry and Duke 2009; Kalkhoff and Gregory 2008) plays a key role in viewer assessment.

Although research on nonverbal behavior by candidates, and how it communicates intelligence, personality, values and stress levels, is a burgeoning field (Bucy 2011; Bucy and Bradley 2004; Dumitrescu, Gidengil, and Stolle 2015; Grabe and Bucy 2009; Koppensteiner, Stephan, and Jaschke 2015), relatively little attention has been given to audience attention to the candidates and their response in the form of applause, laughter, and boos. (1) While other nonverbal cues can have an effect on the viewing audience, especially if greater attention is given the candidates in terms of their speaking time, perhaps more important for those watching the televised coverage is how the debate audiences react to the candidates. This is because primary debates, which by their nature involve in-group competition among the candidates for the mantle of leadership, may be seen as relying upon the mobilization of support from the audience that is audibly evidenced through laughter and applause. Lanoue and Schrott (1989, 305n.7) note in their analysis of a 1984 Democratic Party presidential primary debate "that the two candidates most often interrupted by applause and laughter in Dallas (Jackson and Gore) were the ones most often chosen by our subjects as having 'won' the debate." Furthermore, primary debates are much more raucous affairs than general election debates, with substantially more applause and laughter. Specifically, Stewart (2012) found nearly two and four times more audience laughter, respectively, in preprimary and primary debates when compared with the general election debates during the 2008 presidential election. …

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