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Election 2000:
How Viewers "See" a Presidential Debate

by Thomas E. Patterson
Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Presented October 3, 2000
Boston, MA

  1. Introduction
  2. Through the Viewers' Eyes
  3. Can the Debates Be Strengthened?
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Few televised events have the audience appeal of a presidential debate. The Super Bowl is the only regularly scheduled event that routinely draws a larger minute-to-minute audience. Presidential debates have drawn on average about 75 million viewers, which is roughly the size of the audience for the Academy Awards. By comparison, the typical prime-time program on ABC, NBC, or CBS draws 9 million viewers.

Televised Debate Ratings

The audience for the televised debates has been shrinking (see Figure 1). The 1992 debates between Clinton, Bush, and Perot were an exception to the trend, but the viewing audience has gradually declined, largely because of the alternative programming available on cable television.

The latest Shorenstein Center weekly national poll indicates that the first general-election debate of the 2000 campaign is unlikely to break the downward trend. Only 28% of the respondents said they expect to watch most of Tuesday's debate and nearly 40% said they would not watch any of it. These proportions roughly parallel the audience numbers for the first Clinton-Dole debate in 1996.

The debate audience in future elections can be expected to decline further because of generational change. Today's young adults are measurably less interested in politics than those of even a decade or two ago. Most of them pay little or no attention to the daily news or public affairs programming as a result of the media environment in which they grew up. Unlike the pre-cable generation, they did not as children have regular exposure to television or print news and they did not acquire an interest in it. They do not have a news habit and display only passing interest in public affairs.

  Table 1: How much of the October 3 debate do you plan to watch?
  All 18-29 30+
Most of it 27% 14% 33%
Some of it 15% 17% 16%
Only a little 17% 21% 18%
None 37% 48% 38%
Approximately 2% of respondents answered "don't know" and were omitted from these results.

In our recent poll, nearly half of young adults (18-29 years of age) said they do not plan to watch any of the debate and an additional 21% claimed they would watch only a little of it. Only 14% said they would watch most of it (see Table 1).

Nevertheless, the debates are still very popular with most Americans. The reasons are obvious enough. Like the Super Bowl and the Oscars, the debates are, as Alan Schroeder observes, "human drama at its rawest." The stakes are high, and the outcome is uncertain. Debates are staged and ritualized events, but they are not fully scripted or completely predictable, as evidenced by Ronald Reagan's unexpectedly masterful performance in 1980 and his surprisingly addled performance four years later. Conflict, risk, and suspense are elements of drama, and the debates offer them on a level unmatched by any other scheduled televised political event.1

If the reasons Americans choose to watch the debates are clear enough, the way in which they watch the debates is less well understood. How do viewers process and evaluate what they see and hear?

Through the Viewers' Eyes >>

1. Alan Schroeder, Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 201.

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