Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Subtle Nature of Presidential Debate Influence

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Subtle Nature of Presidential Debate Influence

Article excerpt

Televised debates have become an intrinsic communication form in contemporary presidential campaigns. Every presidential election campaign since 1976 has featured one or more debates. In addition, they are a watershed event in most campaigns: a moment in which other campaign activity slows and media, pundits, and the attentive public focus their attention on debates (Jamieson & Birdsell, 1988).

Most of us who study political communication believe that debates are superior to other communication forms in that they offer an opportunity for candidates to advocate the relative superiority of their positions via a communication venue that facilitates clash, depth, and unfiltered access. Indeed, some studies confirm that debates do, in fact, provide more depth in candidate discourse than other communication forms (Ellsworth, 1965; Mortensen, 1968). Contention among political communication scholars mainly concerns how this communication form might best serve American democracy (i.e., what format is optimal).

Political communication scholars operate from the premise that debates matter--that they make a difference: in people's knowledge and perceptions and, therefore, in campaign outcomes; and by strengthening the democratic process itself However, the search for debate effects has been elusive.

Many studies have addressed the question of debate effects since general election televised debates commenced in 1960. The results of these studies tend to conflict, although, on balance, they suggest modest effects.

There are learning effects, for certain. The preponderance of empirical studies indicate that presidential debates conducted during the general election enhance viewer learning about the candidates and their issue positions (Abramowitz, 1978; Apker & Voss, 1994; Becker, Sobowale, Cobbey, & Eyal, 1980; Benoit, Webber, & Berman, 1998; Chaffee, 1978; Chaffee & Dennis, 1979; Dennis, Chaffee, & Choe, 1979; Drew & Weaver, 1991; Jamieson & Adasiewicz, 2000; Katz & Feldman, 1962; Kelly, 1962; Lanoue, 1992; Lemert, 1993; Lichtenstein, 1982; Lupfer & Wald, 1979; Mayer & Carlin, 1994; Miller & MacKuen, 1979; O'Keefe & Mendelsohn, 1979; Pfau & Eveland, 1994; Sears & Chaffee, 1979; Twentieth Century Task Force, 1979; Zhu, Milavsky, & Biswas, 1994). However, potential for voter learning varies across presidential contests, thereby explaining the results of the handful of dissenting studies that found no significant learning effects (e.g., Bishop, Oldendick, & Tuchfarber, 1980; Hagner & Rieselbach, 1980). Learning is more l ikely in presidential elections without a popular incumbent and in debates which occur earlier in an election campaign (Hellweg, Pfau, & Brydon, 1992). However, the bulk of studies, including most of those reporting statistically significant learning effects, indicate that the magnitude of such effects are modest and, inevitably, they fall far short of pre-debate expectations (Graber & Kim, 1978; O'Keefe & Mendelsohn, 1979; Hellweg et al., 1992).

If learning effects are clear, albeit modest, persuasive effects have been far more equivocal. This fact has frustrated political communication scholars ever since the first televised general election presidential debates in 1960.

Many studies suggest that presidential debates impact voter attitudes toward candidates and, under certain conditions, voting disposition (Barnett, 1981; Becker, Pepper Wenner, & Kim, 1979; Benoit & Wells 1996; Ben-Zeev & White, 1962; Brydon, 1985; Casey & Fitzgerald, 1977; Chaffee Choe, 1980; D. Davis, 1979; M. Davis, 1982; Geer, 1988; Kelley, 1983; Krivonos, 1976; Ladd & Ferree, 1981; Leuthold & Valentine 1981; Middleton, 1962; Pfau & Kang, 1991; Pfau & Eveland, 1994; Pfau, Cho, & Chong 2001; Robinson, 1979; Roper, 1960, 1977; Swerdlow, 1984; Tannenbaum, Greenberg, & Silverman, 1962; Walker & Peterson, 1981). …

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