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Public Involvement and the 2000 Nominating Campaign: Implications for Electoral Reform

Policy Implications: Communication in the Nominating Phase

The Vanishing Voter Project seeks to improve knowledge of public involvement in presidential campaigns. It also seeks to apply this knowledge to policy judgments about the structure of the campaign. The project assumes ceteris paribus that a more engaged and informed public is preferable to a less informed and engaged one and that the public's involvement is to some degree affected by the structure and conduct of the campaign.

Televised Debates

The most successful structural reform of recent decades was the reintroduction in 1976 of televised general election debates. The fact that 70 million Americans tune into these debates is remarkable enough; the fact that most viewers watch a ninety-minute debate nearly in its entirety is truly remarkable. The general election debates also meet the "water-cooler test" the next day, millions of people share their impressions of what they saw and heard the night before. These debates are more than just another campaign event. They are an act of community. For an hour and a half, millions of people involve themselves actively in a collective political experience.

The primary election debates are quite another story. They do not draw large or highly enthusiastic audiences and have much less capacity to hold an audience's attention. Of course, our audience data underestimates the debates' impact since the debates affect the next day's election coverage. We found that election news typically increased the day following a debate. Our evidence also suggests that a string of televised debates before the Iowa caucuses was a contributing factor both directly and indirectly through news coverage to increased public involvement during this period.

Nevertheless, it seems safe to say that the full potential of the televised primary debates has not yet been realized. This potential is unlikely to be realized unless the commercial broadcast networks assume responsibility for televising some of the debates. There are still many Americans who do not have cable television. It is also the case that debate viewing is in part "accidental." Some viewers watch a debate, not because they know it is schedule and make a point to see it, but because they happen to come across it when changing channels. Since the broadcast networks are among the cable channels that viewers habitually monitor, the number of inadvertent viewers would increase substantially if the networks carried some of the debates.

Our data (at least from a preliminary analysis) are otherwise inconclusive. We correlated people's responses to the debates with a wide range of debate-related factors including formats and number of participants. The public's responses to the debates were not closely related to any of these factors. Responses to open-ended questions about the debates suggest that viewers prefer a more spontaneous type of debate to a rigidly structured one, as long as spontaneity does not degenerate into mudslinging. We also detected a degree of viewer fatigue with the later debates ("it was the same old thing") that might suggest a smaller number of more widely televised debates would be preferable. In some of the later Republican debates, some viewers also complained about the continuing presence in the debates of candidates who had no chance of winning, although we found no consistent relationship between people's overall reactions to the GOP debates and the number of candidates who participated.

News Coverage

Public involvement closely correlates with the amount of election coverage (see Figure 7). As coverage increases, involvement rises. As it decreases, involvement declines. Of course, this relationship is partly attributable to developments in the campaign. News coverage and involvement both rise in response to the heightened activity that surrounds contested primaries and caucuses. Nevertheless, as the relationship between involvement and coverage in the period before the first contests indicates, news coverage has some capacity to boost involvement levels.

Figure 7: Campaign News and Voter Involvement

For its part, involvement affects the impact of news coverage. Communication research indicates that people learn more readily from news exposure when they are more deeply involved in a subject. They are both more likely to attend to relevant news stories and to retain the information the news provides.

News coverage during the 2000 nominating campaign focused heavily on the horse race when the primaries were being actively contested. This period, of course, was also the peak time of public involvement and therefore of public learning. News about the candidates' records and issue positions, on the other hand, was a relatively larger proportion of overall election coverage during the period before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. However, involvement during this period was lower and so, therefore, was the public's capacity to acquire this information.

After Super Tuesday week, the amount of election coverage plunged dramatically. There was not much election news of any kind. Yet public involvement was still relatively high at this point. It declined more slowly than news coverage. The news media had an opportunity at this point to contribute to people's information by replaying and extending the earlier policy coverage. An effort of this kind would not have dramatically increased people's issue awareness, but it would have helped to clarify and solidify the information they had acquired.

Policy Implications: Alternative Nominating Systems >>

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