The Impacts of Presidential Debates
Very likely the debates may only reinforce an opinion already held, or create uncertainties that finally are resolved in terms of surface impressions or party affiliation. But they can have, undeniably, a major, if not decisive, influence.
-- Columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover
( 1979, p. 198)
All research points in one direction: debates have not directly and immediately led to any significant number of changes in voting intentions. Yet, a strong case can be made that, without the televised debates in 1960 and 1980, neither Kennedy nor Reagan would have been elected: the course of history would have been changed.
-- Communication Professor Gladys Engel Lang ( 1987, p. 211)
Televised presidential debates are among the most watched programs ever broadcast. Approximately 80 percent of Americans viewed at least one debate in 1960 ( Katz & Feldman, 1977); 90 percent watched at least one in 1976 ( Alexander & Margolis, 1980). As a result, past televised presidential debates have been able to reach in excess of 100 million people ( Drucker & Hunold, 1987; Hershey, 1989; Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Presidential Debates, 1979), far surpassing the typical audience share for all but a handful of televised events.
The important questions are: Do they make any difference? If so, which specific impacts do they generate? The opening quotations to this chapter epitomize the contradictions involving the effects issue. A