Running head: the role of debates in voter education

The Progression of Debates

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The Progression of Debates

This clip, from the 1988 debate between Bush and Dukakis shows the humor Bush brings into the debate (COPD 2015)
After the FCC revised the Equal Time Law in 1975, the presidential debates were back in full swing. (Minow 2015) Sixteen years into this new televised presidential debate normalcy, a debate between then Vice President George Bush and Governor Michael Dukakis seems to mirror the JFK/Nixon debates, in that there was backlash between the candidates. At one point in the debate Bush says “Is this the time to unleash our one-liners? That answer was about as clear as Boston harbor.” This is followed by laughter from the audience. (COPD 2015) There are also times when both Bush and Dukakis interrupt each other while answering questions. These bits from the debate helps support the idea that the debates were more entertaining for the country than educational.

This table shows the comparison of what participants thought to be the nationally most important issues, as well as what they personally thought was the most important issue (Sullivan et al 1989)
On the other hand, there is much evidence supporting the opposing thought that debates do help educate the public. A study done in 1989 by University of Minnesota professors John Sullivan and Eugene Borgida and Duke University professor John Aldrich tested the difference between the issues presidential candidates were debating, and the issues the American public were most concerned about. The surveys were conducted by the American National Election Studies. Their research found that while the public was concerned about issues such as unemployment and social security, the candidates were mostly debating about foreign affairs and defense policies. (Sullivan et al 1989) These findings help make the argument that debates are an effective source of education for the voting public, as it is giving them a chance to learn about these unfamiliar issues. The authors of this study also brought up the idea that because the public has little interest in the issues the candidates are debating as well as little knowledge on them, the debates are having negligible impact on voter turnout. (Sullivan et al 1989) This supports the idea that even though the debates are educational, they have little effect on voter’s behavior at the election.

This table show the number of people who voted a candidate the winner before and after watching the debate (Yawn et al 1996)
Looking back to how the presidential primary debates affect voter education, a study was done by college professors Mike Yawn, Kevin Ellsworth, Bob Beatty, and Kim Fridkin Kahn in 1996 testing how the debates between candidates in the primaries effects the outlook the voting public has on them. This study consisted of surveying people who attended the Arizona GOP debate, which included a pretest before watching the debate, and a posttest following. The questionnaires asked the participants about their preferences, expectations and attitudes about the current presidential campaign. As for expectations about the debate, they found that the expected winner and loser was severely different than the perceived winner and loser. (Yawn et al 1996) This data helps support the argument that presidential primary debates are influential in voter education, as simply watching one primary debate was able to change the opinions of potential voters. This change in opinion comes from the participants acquiring knowledge about the candidates they either didn’t know or thought was false. When looking at preferences and attitudes towards the candidates, the professors found that there was significant change in the participant’s answers of who they were voting for in the pretest and the posttest. (Yawn et al 1996) This data brings up the point that in addition to educating voters, it is possible that the primary debates could increase voter turnout in the primary polls. Because the opinions of who the participant’s felt “won” the debate as well as who they were planning to vote on changed drastically, this means that the primary debates have the power to take someone who wasn’t planning on voting in the primaries and have them vote in that poll.

In 2000, IU professors David Weaver and Dan Drew did the same test they did in 1992, to see whether traditional media, such as the presidential debates, or non-traditional media, such as television coverage of the campaign, had an effect on how people received information about the election. This test was done again, because they believed the campaign coverage was based more on strategy and tactics of candidates, rather than what they actually had to say about the current issues the country was facing. They conducted a phone survey asking participants, who were again Indiana residents of voting age, questions about how often they use the newspaper or television for campaign info, how many of the debates they watched, and if they knew anything about certain issues that were being debated. They found that the use of the Internet was not a significant source of education for the voting public, despite the Internet being claimed as one of the most important parts of the 2000 election. They also found that televised debates were a significant source of education for the public. (Weaver & Drew 2000) This data backs the argument that debates are an efficient source of education, as they found a significance in the debates, and no other forms of media. Weaver and Drew also compared the degrees of campaign interest across their 1992, 1996 and this 2000 studies. In 1992, the percentage of “very interested” participants was 67.8%, in 1996 it was 20.2%, and in 2000 it was 47.6%. It was found that the high percentage of “very interested” voters spurred from years when debates were a significant source of education. In 1996, debates were not found as a significant source, therefore making the percentage of “very interested” voters drop. (Weaver & Drew 2000) This data also supports the argument that debates have been able to educate potential voters, as when they have played a significant role in the presidential campaign, the amount of “very interested” voters has increased. This also brings in the idea that debates may be able to increase voter turnout, as they have the power to make voters go from “not very interested” to “very interested”.

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