Televised presidential debates have been a staple of the political landscape for more than 50 years. Starting in 1960 with John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, debates have influenced popular opinion and have swayed voters in every election cycle since. Recent political commentary has focused on the release of a tell-all book outlining the painstaking presidential debate preparation both sides experienced during the 2012 electoral cycle and how those debates helped sway potential votes. Now, researchers at the University of Missouri have determined that televised presidential debates do have important consequences on the attitudes of those who view them -- specifically among apathetic or ambivalent voters.
"Viewing debates significantly increased polarization among those who go into the debate with very little candidate preference or attitude and have no strong opinions either way," said Ben Warner, assistant professor of communication who studies political conversation at MU. "The good thing is we feel that moderates make up the group of voters that needs to shift toward one candidate or another."
Data for this study were compiled from potential voters who viewed 12 presidential debates in the 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections as well as the vice-presidential debates in 2008 and 2012. Those surveyed were asked their political attitudes pre- and post-debate. Most of those surveyed who had already chosen a candidate tended to stay the same; however, researchers found that after viewing presidential debates apathetic or ambivalent voters tended to have the highest shift in opinion leading them to gravitate toward one candidate. Additionally, these trends held no matter the outside influence, including the changing media landscape, personal social networks and even individual personality traits.
"Despite the white noise of social networks and media, debates truly do make a difference because they are the single biggest electoral event with the largest audience. Because both sides have equal time to make their cases, debates are the most balanced message voters receive over the course of a campaign," Warner said. "If debates move more moderates into the conversation and help get them more engaged in the political process that's a positive thing because it dilutes the vitriol usually associated with the electoral conversation."
Warner co-authored the study, "To unite and divide: the polarizing effect of presidential debates," with Mitchell McKinney, associate professor in the Department of Communication in the College of Arts and Science at MU. The article appeared in the journal Communications Studies in October 2013.
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