Ever since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon appeared in a televised debate in 1960, TV debates have been powerful moments in U.S. presidential campaigns. In recent years, however, the purpose and influence of presidential debates has come into question as the events have become ever more staged.
This week, a new study has shown that such debates are still powerful influencers of political opinion during campaigns.
The study, published recently in the journal Communications Studies, found that debates do not significantly influence those who have already chosen a candidate to vote for. However, the debates were also seen to push undecided voters toward one candidate or the other.
“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, co-author of the study and a communications professor at the University of Missouri. “The good thing is we feel that moderates make up the group of voters that needs to shift toward one candidate or another.”
The study looked at potential voters who watched the presidential debates in the past four presidential elections, as well as the vice presidential debates in the previous two elections. Undecided voters were found to have the greatest change in opinion following the debates, often leaning toward one candidate. This trend was seen across voters' personal traits measured in the study, and Warner observed that even the shift in media consumption seen in the past decade didn't change the outcome.
“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.”
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