Researchers determine televised presidential debates help moderates choose candidates

Nov 07, 2013

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.

Warner determined that televised 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 as well as the vice-presidential debates in 2008 and 2012. Those surveyed were asked their 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 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."

Explore further: Society bloomed with gentler personalities and more feminine faces

More information: 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.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Researchers measure debate reactions in real time

Oct 22, 2012

(Phys.org)—As Election Day draws nearer, many people are watching the presidential debates with interest. This fall, a team of media and communication professors and students at Texas Tech University are watching the debates ...

Recommended for you

Soccer's key role in helping migrants to adjust

18 hours ago

New research from the University of Adelaide has for the first time detailed the important role the sport of soccer has played in helping migrants to adjust to their new lives in Australia.

Congressional rift over environment influences public

Jul 31, 2014

American citizens are increasingly divided over the issue of environmental protection and seem to be taking their cue primarily from Congress, finds new research led by a Michigan State University scholar.

User comments : 0