Televised debates have become a key feature of election campaigns in many countries around the world. Unlike regular campaign media coverage, they provide voters with the chance to directly listen to the candidates and learn about their stands on the issues and their personalities without the filter of the media’s news selection. Unlike campaign ads, they provide much more information and give the opposing candidate the chance to counterargue. Therefore, televised debates are often regarded as an especially valuable form of campaign communication. In many countries, televised debates reach a larger audience, generate more media coverage, and stimulate more discussion among citizens than any other single campaign event. In addition, numerous studies in several countries show that televised debates have a variety of effects. Due to their assumed importance, a large body of research has been accumulated investigating various aspects of the debates, especially in the US. However, due to differences in political systems, electoral procedures, the role of the candidates, political cultures, and the debates themselves, these findings should not be uncritically transferred to other countries.
History And Formats
The first televised election debate took place in 1956 in the US when Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver ran for the nomination as presidential candidate for the Democratic party. In 1960, the four debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were the first US presidential debates broadcast in television. However, it was not until 1976 that presidential televised debates were held again. Before that, the incumbents refused to take part in televised debates. Besides the US, televised debates have also been common in many other countries for a longer time. For example, the first televised debate in Sweden took place in the late 1950s, in Canada in 1962, and in Germany in 1969. In contrast to that, even some established democracies, like the UK, have never had televised debates in general elections (Coleman 2000).
Since the 1970s, the spreading of televised debates has become part of the modernization and personalization of election campaigns throughout the world. At the end of the 1970s, televised debates were common in only 10 countries. By the end of the 1990s, they were a regular part of general elections in at least 35 nations (Plasser & Plasser 2002). It is very likely that their number has increased since then, because there are various countries in which televised debates have been held for the first time in the past few years (e.g., Taiwan, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan).
Televised debates are not restricted to general presidential or parliamentary elections on a national level. They are also a part of campaigns at the state/regional or local level (e.g., in the US, Germany, and the UK). In addition, there are debates not only between candidates of different parties but also between candidates of the same party trying to win a party’s nomination for an office (e.g., in the US primaries). Moreover, televised debates are not restricted to presidential democracies (e.g., France) or two-party systems (e.g., the US). They are also a part of campaigns in parliamentary democracies with multiparty systems (e.g., Australia, Canada, India, Israel, and South Africa).
There are considerable differences between and within countries as far as the number of debates and their format is concerned. For example, debates differ in their length, the participation of journalists and voters, the number of candidates participating, and their rules (e.g., as far as the length of statements, the possibility of direct responses, etc. is concerned). In the US, candidates standing or sitting on a podium were traditionally interviewed by one or more journalists (joint press conference). In the 1990s, the so-called town hall format was introduced. Here, (undecided) voters discuss with the candidates. In many countries with multiparty systems, debates are not restricted to two candidates but representatives of several parties hold a joint debate moderated by journalists (e.g., India).
In some countries, separate debates are held for the candidates of small and larger parties (e.g., the Netherlands). And in still other nations, candidates of all parties represented in parliament debate in a series of one-on-one discussions (e.g., Austria). The format of a debate is not without consequence. First, several studies investigating debate content indicate that the format of a televised debate influences the actions of the candidates and moderators. For example, in a podium format, candidates seem to be more aggressive and attack oriented than in town hall formats. Second, format also seems to have an impact upon what viewers learn from a debate and to what extent issues and images play a role in candidate evaluations. For example, the more informal chat format seems to result in more issue than candidate image learning, because the format generates more issue-oriented discussion.
Audience Of Televised Debates
In many countries, televised debates in general elections generate the largest audience of all single campaign events. Often, they have the largest audience of all TV events in an election year. For example, 16 million people – about one quarter of the Italian population – watched the debate in the Italian 2006 general election. In the US, about 63 million citizens watched the first debate in 2004 (about 21 percent of the population). However, at least in the US, the audience of the debates has decreased since the first debates in 1960 and 1976. Generally, if a series of debates is held, the first one usually attracts the largest audience. In addition, the size of the audience is influenced by voters’ perceptions of how close the race is, by the number of undecided voters, and by the number of TV stations broadcasting the event.
In several countries, more politically interested voters and those who strongly identify with the debaters’ parties are more likely to watch. In addition, education, income, and age have been found to be significant predictors of debate watching: more highly educated voters, those with higher income, and older voters are more likely to tune in. In addition, as has been shown at least for the US and Germany, those watching a debate are heavier users of news media. Overall, the structure of debate audiences is quite similar to that of consumers of other campaign media. Still, in absolute numbers the candidates can reach more undecided and uninterested voters via debates than by any other means of campaign communication.
Just as the large audiences suggest, numerous studies show that voters like televised debates. They regard them as a good opportunity to learn about the candidates’ personalities and their stands on the issues. In addition, undecided voters hope to get help with their voting decisions. On the other hand, studies have shown that viewers are not always satisfied with the debates. For example, viewers of the 1996 US presidential debates would have preferred longer responses and more rebuttal opportunities, fewer topics, and more questions distinguishing candidates from one another.
Effects Of Televised Debates
Content And Research Questions
Numerous studies have dealt with various aspects of what happens during a debate using both social science content analysis and classical rhetoric. Researchers have investigated the statements of candidates and moderators or citizens in town hall formats, looking at both verbal and visual message elements. Studies on verbal content, for example, have examined the use of arguments, evidence, and humor, the amount of attacks, acclaims, and defenses, language styles, and the degree of clash (analysis of one’s own versus the opponent’s position or attacks). Most of these studies show that debates are rather issue oriented and contain less character discussion or attacks on opponents than other forms of campaign communication. This does not necessarily mean, of course, that there is much depth of argument in the debates. In contrast to that, studies on visual content have been rather rare. This is quite surprising, bearing in mind the widespread notion that the visual appearance of candidates might be able to decide a debate. Even in the US, the latest comprehensive analysis of visual message components dates back to the 1992 presidential debates.
The largest amount of debate research investigates their effects. Most studies focus on immediate effects on perceptions of who won the debate, knowledge about candidates’ issue stands, candidate images, and voting behavior. A limited number of studies deal with more latent effects on, for example, voters’ civic engagement and political alienation. Most effect studies use pre-test/post-test design with (representative) surveys or focus groups. In addition, there is an increasing number of experimental studies and studies using real-time response measurements of viewers’ reactions during debates. Generally, debates seem to differ in their impact on voters due to differences in the specific campaign contexts, formats, candidates involved, their performances, etc. This means that some debates seem to have strong effects whereas others remain of marginal influence.
Verdicts About Who Won
Post-debate surveys of viewers and large portions of post-debate media coverage focus on the question of who won the debate. In fact, studies have shown that only the perceived winner can benefit from a debate in terms of votes. Therefore, it is important to know how viewers arrive at their immediate post-debate verdicts. Generally, those verdicts are affected by political predispositions, expectations, and the perception of the debate itself. Unfortunately, there are only a few studies that combine measures of all of these factors to explain post-debate verdicts. These studies show that the debate itself can have an impact on the perceptions of the winner that goes beyond the influence of party identification and expectations. The likelihood of positive verdicts can be increased by candidates when they use acclaims and commonplaces in the debate. These often result in positive reactions by viewers. On the other hand, attacks and factual evidence tend to polarize supporters and opponents of the candidates (Reinemann & Maurer 2005).
Numerous studies have shown that televised debates can enhance viewer’s knowledge of candidates’ issue stands. These effects are mostly the result of verbal elements of the debate. The question in the studies usually is whether participants are able to accurately assign statements or positions to a candidate. However, effects are stronger for less politically interested viewers, early debates have a stronger impact, and viewers seem to learn more about the challenger than about the incumbent. A second learning effect is agenda setting. Several studies show that those issues extensively discussed in a debate are likely to be of greater importance to debate viewers afterwards. And finally, although this has not been extensively studied, televised debates have also been shown to affect viewers’ perceptions of reality, e.g., of the economic state of a country.
Another group of studies has shown that debates influence candidate images, i.e., how personal traits and abilities of the candidates are perceived and how candidates are evaluated. Effects on two types of traits can be differentiated: whereas perceptions of political traits like issue competences or effectiveness seem to be more strongly affected by verbal message components, perceptions of personal traits like trustworthiness or likeability are more strongly affected by visual elements. Again, the images of less well-known candidates are more likely to be affected than those of better-known candidates (incumbents).
Recent studies have begun to look at priming effects of televised debates. They argue that debates can change the relative importance of various cognitive elements that are connected to attitudes about candidates and voting decisions. Priming effects are regarded as the link between “indirect” effects on candidate images and “direct” effects on voting decisions. Debates can have priming effects at three levels. First, debates can increase the importance of some personality traits in comparison to others (e.g., trustworthiness vs. rhetorical abilities), changing the overall evaluation of a candidate’s personal qualities. Second, they can enhance the importance of personality traits in comparison to personal issue competences, changing the overall evaluation of a candidate. Third, they can enhance the importance of candidates in comparison to party identification and issue positions, changing voting intentions. A study of the second 2002 German debate showed priming effects at all three levels (Maurer & Reinemann 2003).
At least in the US, presidential debates tend to reinforce the voting intentions of those already committed more than they change them. For the US, the number of partisans changing their voting intentions because of debates has been estimated to be about one to four percent (Jamieson & Adasiewicz 2000, 26). In other countries, much stronger effects have been reported for certain debates (e.g., Australia, Mexico). But even when the number of converted party identifiers remains relatively small, this does not mean that debate effects are minimal. In many western democracies, the number of party identifiers has been declining and effects on independent and undecided voters seem to be much stronger. In addition, a small percentage of converts still might decide an election in close races. On the basis of their extensive review of US debate research, McKinney & Carlin (2004) came to the conclusion that four of the eight presidential races between 1960 and 2000 that featured televised debates were decisively influenced by them .
Debate Coverage And Its Effects
In several countries, content analyses have shown that televised debates generate more media attention than any other single campaign event. Before the debates, the media mold the expectations of the debate. Immediately afterwards, journalists and experts give their interpretations of it, sometimes relying on instant polls. In addition, the contestants’ campaigners try to get through with their interpretations. In the following days, the media do not focus on issues but on the performance of the candidates, the question “who won?” and strategic aspects of the debate. In addition, they generally accentuate the negative. In some countries, general political leanings of the media are also clearly visible in debate coverage. Post-debate coverage influences perceptions of a debate, even among those who watched it themselves. For example, studies in Germany using panel designs showed that up to one quarter of the viewers of the second debate in 2002 changed their minds about who won the debate in the following days as a result of media coverage. In addition, the media communicate the result of the debate to those who did not watch it themselves.
Future Directions For Research
Despite a large body of research, there still is a need for more studies of televised debates. Among the various aspects that seem to deserve special attention are:
- International comparisons. Most of our knowledge on televised debates comes from the US context. Internationally comparative studies could enhance our understanding of the impact of contextual factors like political culture, or the political and the media system. For example, effects of televised debates are likely to be stronger in emerging democracies and more complicated in multiparty systems.
- Linking debate content and effects. In most studies, debates are regarded as one single stimulus, and what actually happens in them is largely ignored. In recent years, researchers have come to call for more micro-level investigations of how debates produce their effects and what types of arguments, statements, rhetorical means, and visual message elements resonate with the audience.
- Stability of effects. In another promising line of research, scholars have begun to investigate whether immediate post-debate effects last until election day and how debate messages interact with messages in other channels of campaign communication. Disentangling these interactions will give us an even better understanding of the impact of televised debates.
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