Viewers Turned Off by Debate Format
December 9, 1999
Presidential election debates are presumed to draw attention to how well the candidates perform. The recent GOP debate in New Hampshire provoked a startlingly different public reaction. Not many people watched the debate, but those who did responded primarily to the debate format. Their reaction was overwhelmingly negative, and most of them turned off the TV or changed channels.
Some viewers did respond to the candidates' performances. "I was impressed with Bush," said one viewer. Another claimed: "I thought McCain won the debate because Bush didn't dominate it and Alan Keyes embarrassed himself."
By a 2 to 1 ratio, however, viewers reacted more frequently to the debate format than to the candidates. "I was disappointed," said one viewer. "I do not like a structured debate. If they are gonna debate, give them time to talk and let the others have time to answer them." Another viewer claimed: "It was b-o-r-i-n-g. The format was not a debate format."
Of those who reacted to the format, nearly 70% had a negative opinion. Their major complaint was that the debate lacked spontaneity. One viewer said the New Hampshire debate was "choreographed." Another characterized it as "a dog-and-pony show-not a true debate." They were responding to a format dominated by the candidates' opening and closing remarks and predictable questions, which enabled the candidates to rely on canned statements.
"Debates of this type simply don't meet the voters' needs or serve their interests," says Thomas Patterson, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project and Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard. "More spontaneity, true give-and-take, and tough but fair questioning are needed if these so-called debates are to become forums for attracting voters to the campaign and giving them a helpful look at the candidates."
Turned Off, Tuning Out
The four presidential debates held thus far in the 2000 campaign have had small audiences. The GOP debate in New Hampshire attracted only 1.6 million viewers according to Nielsen Media Research. The sole Democratic debate was held in late October and also drew only 1.6 million viewers. Four times as many watched a WWF wrestling program broadcast in the same time slot.
The Shorenstein Center poll found that the audience for the New Hampshire GOP debate also had a high turnover. Of those who claimed to have tuned in the debate, less than 20% said they had watched all or most of it. "The candidates danced around each other. That's why we turned it off," said a viewer.
The debate was a sharp contrast with those held in the general election. More than 70 million Americans watch the typical general election debate, and the large proportion stay tuned throughout. These debates also meet the "water-cooler test." Studies indicate that millions of people the next day share their thoughts and impressions of what they had seen and heard during the debate.
"It is unreasonable to expect a primary election debate to generate the audience and excitement of one held within weeks of the general election between the major party nominees," says Marvin Kalb, project co-director and Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington office. "But it's also unreasonable to think that primary election debates cannot be improved."
News Coverage of the Debate Also Fails to Excite
The New Hampshire GOP debate also failed to excite news audiences. Although election coverage in major news outlets increased by 60% in response to the debate, it quickly settled back to its earlier level, apparently because the debate failed to generate a major story.
The public's attention followed the same pattern. The Shorenstein Center poll found that the number of Americans who said they had talked about the campaign with another person during the past day rose from 10% to 17% on the day after the debate. Likewise, 37% recalled having seen a campaign news story, up from only 22% the previous day.
The increase was short-lived, however. Roughly two days after the debate, the level of campaign interest had nearly returned to pre-debate levels. In a brief span, the debate had become a forgettable episode in the 2000 campaign. There was no development or statement in the debate that gave Americans a reason to think and talk further about it.
The Voter Involvement Index
A feature of the Vanishing Voter Project is the Voter Involvement Index, which will track the public's involvement in the presidential campaign on a weekly basis through next November. The Index is based on four measures whether people say they are currently paying close attention to the campaign, and whether they are thinking about the campaign, talking about it, and following it in the news. The Index for the week of December 1-5 was 21%, up from 16% the previous week but below that of early November, when Elizabeth Dole's withdrawal from the race, John McCain's alleged temper, and George W. Bush's inability to identify public leaders were topics of public interest.
The survey results reported here are from a nationwide telephone survey of 1,014 adults conducted December 1-5, 1999. The poll has 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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