Citizen Response to the 1996 Presidential Debates: Focusing on the Focus Groups
Mitchell S. McKinney University of Oklahoma
Elizabeth R. Lamoureux Buena Vista University
With the tradition established by John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 and repeated every 4 years since the exchanges between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976, televised presidential debates have become an institutional component in the process of electing the nation's leader. Indeed, the importance of televised debates as a source of campaign information may best be argued by the fact that debates attract more viewers than any other single campaign event. Miller and MacKuen ( 1979) reported, for example, that roughly 90% of the adult population viewed at least one of the Kennedy-Nixon debates; and in 1976, approximately 83% viewed at least one of the Ford-Carter exchanges. More recently, during the 1992 campaign, nearly 70 million viewers tuned in to see the Bush-Clinton-Perot "town hall" debate, compared with 20 million viewers who watched the major party conventions that year (Nielson Media Research, 1993).
The usefulness of presidential debates also has been established by a large body of debate scholarship, much of which has specifically examined the effects debates have on viewers. Although some critics have argued that these televised events represent not "true" but rather "counterfeit" political debating (e.g., Auer, 1962, 1981), a consistent body of research has shown that debates do influence voters. Lanoue and Schrott ( 1991) organized their review of the extant political debate research around the attitudinal, cognitive, and behavioral effects of debates and concluded that "debates have fulfilled their promise of creating a better (i.e., more informed and inter-