Presidential debates are mostly positive and emphasize policy

Sep 24, 2008

Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are preparing for their first presidential debate this week. William Benoit, one of the nation's leading experts on political campaigns at the University of Missouri, says presidential debates have become an important part of presidential campaigns since 1960.

Benoit, a communication professor in the MU College of Arts and Science, has analyzed 23 presidential debates since 1960 and found that most statements by candidates in debates are 57 percent positive over time. This level is about the same as in general election TV-spots from candidates, which average 59 percent positive. TV spots do have more attacks than debates, 40 percent to 35 percent, and debates have more defenses (direct refutations of attacks) than ads. About eight percent of the candidate statements in debates are defenses, 1 percent in ads.

According to Benoit, debates are mostly about policy: 75 percent of the candidates' statements are about policy. In TV spots 62 percent of the statements are about policy. In general, newspaper stories have a tendency to emphasize character more, and policy less, than candidates. In newspaper stories about debates specifically, the same tendency occurs. Newspaper stories from 1980-2000 discussed character more (31 percent) than the candidates themselves in debate statements (26 percent).

"If we think debates are mostly negative, that impression is encouraged by news coverage," Benoit said. "News coverage in general is more negative than statements from the candidates because reporters are more likely to cover attacks in their stories."

Benoit also found newspaper stories have a tendency to emphasize character more and policy less, than candidates. In general, 75 percent of candidates' statements in a debate are mostly about policy, whereas only 62 percent of TV-spot statements are about policy. In newspaper stories about debates specifically, the same tendency occurs. Newspaper stories from 1980-2000 discussed character 31 percent of the time, while candidates referred to character only 26 percent of the time during debates.

In addition, Benoit investigated the topics of questions asked by journalists in debates through 2000, such as inflation, unemployment, Social Security and national defense. The frequency of question topics in each debate was compared with public opinion poll data on the importance of these topics to voters. Only in 1960 did journalists ask more debate questions about the topics that were most important to voters. In other years, the importance of a topic to voters had no impact on the number of questions journalists asked about that topic. This situation improved briefly when citizens were allowed to ask the questions that mattered to them in the 1992 and 1996 town hall debates. However, in 2000, citizen questions were submitted before the debate and the moderator decided which questions would be asked and which topics would be emphasized in the debate.

Source: University of Missouri-Columbia

Explore further: Ig Nobel winner: Using pork to stop nosebleeds

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Gender identity and single-sex schools

Dec 11, 2013

Newspaper headlines worldwide tout the benefits of single-sex schools: Girls 75% more likely to take math if they go to a single-sex private school, Will boys learn better if girls aren't allowed? Single-sex education is ...

Why states need social media policies

Oct 31, 2013

Soon after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence posted a statement on Facebook expressing disappointment in the Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage, a long string of comments affirming his support for "traditional marriage" appeared.

Recommended for you

Ig Nobel winner: Using pork to stop nosebleeds

10 hours ago

There's some truth to the effectiveness of folk remedies and old wives' tales when it comes to serious medical issues, according to findings by a team from Detroit Medical Center.

History books spark latest Texas classroom battle

Sep 16, 2014

As Texas mulls new history textbooks for its 5-plus million public school students, some academics are decrying lessons they say exaggerate the influence of Christian values on America's Founding Fathers.

Flatow, 'Science Friday' settle claims over grant

Sep 16, 2014

Federal prosecutors say radio host Ira Flatow and his "Science Friday" show that airs on many National Public Radio stations have settled civil claims that they misused money from a nearly $1 million federal ...

User comments : 0