Presidential Debate Stories Accentuate the Negative

By Reber, Bryan H.; Benoit, William L. | Newspaper Research Journal, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Presidential Debate Stories Accentuate the Negative


Reber, Bryan H., Benoit, William L., Newspaper Research Journal


Primary campaigns, generally, and primary debates, in particular, merit scholarly attention. Primary candidates narrow the field of contenders, presenting voters with a choice in November. This process can be particularly important when one party has a weak incumbent. In 1976 Jimmy Carter might not have been the only Democrat who could have defeated Gerald Ford. Four years later, other Republicans besides Ronald Reagan might have been capable of ousting Carter. In 1992, Bill Clinton may not have been the only Democrat who could have beaten George Bush. Thus, in some years the primaries may in effect decide the outcome of the general election by determining who gets to face and defeat the weak opponent.

Second, primary debates are more common than general debates. In 1948, Harold E. Stassen and Thomas E. Dewey participated in the first presidential (primary) debate, broadcast over radio. (1) John F. Kennedy practiced for the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960 by debating Hubert H. Humphrey before the West Virginia primary. Scholarship indicates that every campaign from 1948 to 2000, with the sole exception of 1964, included at least one primary debate. (2) Furthermore, in recent campaigns, primary debates have outnumbered general election debates. In 2000, three general election debates were held in the fall, while twenty-two primary debates informed viewers of the relative merits of the candidates for each party's nomination. The fact that there are so many debates means that there are many more opportunities to influence voters, which may help compensate for the fact that fewer people watch each primary debate. Furthermore, primary debate performance can help candidates attract media attention.

Another reason primary messages are important is that candidates are less well-known in the primary than in the general campaign. For example, in 2000, the two nominees who competed in the general election, Al Gore and George W. Bush, were better known than Orrin Hatch or Alan Keyes. However, even Bush and Gore became better-known during the general election than they were during the primary campaign. Thus, debates have a greater opportunity for influence in the primary than in the general campaign. (3)

Of course, debates in the primary campaign do not attract the same number of viewers as general election debates. The electorate, in general, often does not get interested until the candidate field is narrowed. Jamieson and Birdsell noted that in November of 1987 only 15 percent of those surveyed said they were paying very close attention to news reports about Democratic presidential candidates, and 13 percent said they were paying close attention to the Republican race. (4) Because relatively few voters watch individual primary debates, the media may have more impact on voters. That is, if voters don't watch the debate themselves, they are dependent on the media to learn about the debates. Research shows that media use contributes to campaign knowledge. (5)

However, the media have a strong proclivity for focusing on the "horse race" aspects of campaigns: who is ahead, what states are being contested, who is campaigning where. Patterson explained, "in its coverage of a presidential campaign, the press concentrates on the strategic game played by the candidates in their pursuit of the presidency, thereby de-emphasizing the questions of national policy and leadership." In fact, his investigation of the 1976 campaign concluded that "the election's substance ... received only half as much coverage as was accorded the game." (6) Voters can learn about candidates from the news, but not as much as might be supposed.

Gans, also focusing on the 1976 election, did consider coverage of debates: "The debates became news and their coverage followed the daily campaign format, the news media paid major attention to candidate mistakes, and like the pollsters, treated the debates as contests, and thus part of the larger horse race. …

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