Controlling the 2012 Republican primary debates : why the structure of the television moderators' questions matters




Brown, Paul Hamman

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Viewership for televised presidential debates has grown in recent years. The debates involving the major party nominees remain the most-watched political events in American politics, and viewership for those held during the primary season are on the rise. During the 2012 Republican primary season, a record 20 debates were held. With millions watching the debates, they deserve scrutiny. The research on the effects of presidential debates up to this point has focused primarily on the first level of agenda setting related to questions and answers. This research expanded that work by considering the second level of agenda setting, or attribute agenda setting. Through qualitative discourse analysis of the questions and responses, as well as measuring the amount of screen time provided each candidate, this study found that cumulatively, the more time a candidate received to answer questions, the less uncertainty there was about that candidate among voters surveyed in a national poll. It also found that debate questions structured with attributes that challenge presidential candidates do not correlate with negative voter preference for them. In fact, the opposite holds true. Implications for debate viewers and organizers are discussed.


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