Debates Get People Talking About Campaign
During the past week, Americans have been talking about the presidential election more than they have at any other time in the 2000 campaign. On the typical day, nearly half of adults claimed to have discussed the campaign with someone.
Since last November, the Shorenstein Center has conducted weekly national polls to measure the public's involvement in the presidential selection process. Among the questions that have been asked each week is whether the respondent had discussed the campaign with anyone during the past day. On a typical day in the 2000 election, 22% of adults reported having a campaign-related conversation. During the past week, the level jumped to 44% and rose above 50% on the days immediately following both the first presidential and the vice-presidential debates. "Not only did the American people in very large numbers 40 to 50 million television sets were tuned in watch the debates," says Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project and the Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington Office. "They also found them interesting enough to be discussed thereafter."
The pattern of election-related discussion also changed with the debates. During routine periods of the campaign, a majority of these conversations took place between spouses. After last week's presidential and vice-presidential debates, a majority of the conversations involved other family members, friends, or co-workers. "Debates meet the water-cooler test," says Thomas Patterson, director of the Shorenstein Center polls and Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "The day after a debate, millions of Americans in homes and at work discuss with others their impressions of what they saw the night before in the debate."
The Shorenstein Center polls show the importance that key events play in activating people's interest in the election. In the period before the first debate, campaign-related conversation rose dramatically only when a major event, such as the New Hampshire primary, the Super Tuesday primaries, or the Republican and Democratic conventions, occurred. After Super Tuesday, for example, 38% of adults reported having talked with someone about the campaign during the past day. In contrast, in the period from Super Tuesday until the first national party convention, the daily conversation level was almost always below 20%.
Viewers of the presidential and vice-presidential debates generally liked what they saw. In both cases, approximately 25% said that they were more interested in following the presidential campaign based on what they had seen and heard during the debate. This increase in interest was particularly pronounced among younger viewers. Although 18 to 29 year olds were less than half as likely to watch the debate as those 30 and above (28% to 53%), just over one-third of those who did said they were more interested in the campaign as a result, compared to one-quarter of viewers aged 30 and above.
The results reported here are from nationwide telephone surveys of approximately 1,000 adults conducted November 14, 1999 October 8, 2000. The surveys have a sampling error of ±3%. The Vanishing Voter Project is a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Funding for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project is co-directed by Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, and by Marvin Kalb, Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's office in Washington.
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