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Televised debates have become a key feature of election campaigns in many countries around the world although their format differs between and within countries. 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. 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. 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. 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 on television.
Numerous studies have dealt with various aspects of what happens during a debate using both social science content analysis and classical rhetoric. Studies on verbal content, for example, have examined the use of arguments, evidence, and humor, the number of attacks, acclaims, and defenses, language styles, and the degree of clash. Most of these studies show that debates are rather issue-oriented and contain fewer character discussions or attacks on opponents than other forms of campaign communication. 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 is able to decide a debate.
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 are 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 because of 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. Post-debate surveys of viewers and large portions of post-debate media coverage focus on the question of who won the debate. Generally, those verdicts are affected by political predispositions, expectations, and the perception of the debate itself. 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 from 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 viewers’ knowledge of candidates’ issue stands. Effects on the candidates’ images 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. Studies on priming effects of televised debates have found that debates can (1) increase the importance of some personality traits in comparison to others, (2) enhance the importance of personality traits in comparison to personal issue competences, and (3) enhance the importance of candidates in comparison to party identification and issue positions, changing voting intentions. Usually, debates tend to reinforce the voting intentions of those already committed more than they change them.
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- McKinney, M. S. & Carlin, D. B. (2004). Political campaign debates. In L. L. Kaid (ed.), Handbook of political communication research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 203–234.
- Reinemann, C. & Maurer, M. (2005). Unifying or polarizing: Short-term effects and post-debate consequences of different rhetorical strategies in televised debates. Journal of Communication, 55, 775–794.
- Rhea, D. M. (2012). There they go again – the use of humor in presidential debates 1960–2008. Argumentation and Advocacy, 49(2), 115–131.