Running head: the role of debates in voter education

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Early Debates

The first presidential primary debate was seen in 1948 between two Republican candidates in Oregon. This debate, between New York Governor Thomas Dewey and former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen, was an hour long radio broadcast focused on the topic of outlawing the Communist party in the United States. (COPD 2015) This presidential primary set the standards for the primaries we see today. Two professors from The University of Virginia, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, bring up the idea that presidential primary debates are more important than general presidential debates because they include more candidates for a particular party, rather than just one from each. (Kondik and Skelley 2015) This means that voters in the primary have to make a decision between multiple people instead of just choosing who matches their political party. What the candidates have to say in these debates is also influential on the primary poll results. For example, in 2012, Governor Rick Perry called critics of the Texas DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act heartless. By the time Perry apologized a month and a half later, he had already dropped from first in the polls to fourth. (Kondik & Skelley 2015) Because what candidates say in these debates is so important, the presidential primary debates should be getting more media airtime than the general presidential debates.

Pictured above, Newton Minow has been called the “father of televised presidential debates” by Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter (Minow 2008)
Twelve years after the first presidential primary debate, the first presidential debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, was aired on TV. Newton Minow, author of Inside the Presidential Debates gives his insight about the beginning of presidential debates, as he helped found them. One important topic he mentions is the cancellation of presidential debates after JFK was assassinated. For 16 years, between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) interpreting the Equal Time Law, and the unwillingness to debate from the current presidents, the debates were put to a stop. (Minow 2008) This absence of candidate knowledge impacted how potential voters back then received information. An estimated 77 million Americans tuned into the first presidential debate, but soon after, that source was taken away for some time. (Minow 2008) Because of how many people were willing to watch these first-time face to face encounters, it shows that from 1960 up until 1976, the voting public was not getting as educated as they could be about the presidential candidates.

Pictured above is John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon at one of the first televised presidential debates

Minow goes on to say that although the debates had a large viewership, some critics believed they were more designed for entertainment purposes and aimed for an emotional audience. (2008) This criticism can be supported with debate transcripts provided by the Commission on Presidential Debates ( In most of the transcripts, there was obvious interruption between the moderators and the candidates, giving the debates more of a non-serious and unimportant feel. There was also the very beginning of candidates pulling each other’s tails during the debate. This is seen in the October 7, 1960 debate when Nixon begins to give his rebuttal toward Kennedy, but makes a point to correct himself and call him Senator Kennedy rather than just Kennedy. (COPD 2015) These events from the debate, along with what the critics had to say about the debate make the argument that presidential debates began purely for entertainment purposes, as they could contract many viewers, rather than actually educating the public about the current presidential election.

In 1995, a study was conducted to see if traditional media, such as the debates, was a better source of education for voters than non-traditional media, such as talk shows. This study, conducted by Indiana University journalism professors David Weaver and Dan Drew, gave phone interviews to 504 Indiana residents of voting age. They found that traditional media did increase voter’s issue knowledge, while non-traditional media had no effect on issue knowledge. The study also found that neither form of media had any effect on people’s likeliness to vote. (Weaver and Drew 1995). Although this journal was written so long ago, it gives insight into how debates were effecting voter education back when presidential debates were starting back up. The data found from this study helps me to argue that the presidential debates were educational back then, as they were able to increase the knowledge of the election in potential voters, while sources such as daytime talk shows had no influence on voter knowledge.

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