Does format matter? An analysis of the 2008 Presidential Debates

Rosenburg, Amanda
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
University of Delaware
Each presidential debate is different, with different candidates, issues, and overall formats. 1992 marked a major turning point in debate format, with the introduction of the town hall debate, which utilized questions from the audience instead of journalists. The 2008 town hall debate was enhanced with the inclusion of Internet questions, increasing the potential audience size enormously. There has been an extensive amount of research conducted about debate effects, finding that viewers do learn from debates and their behaviors are affected. Results show that viewers who view debates express greater interest in participating in the campaign process than those that did not view a debate. But because the Internet has not previously been included in a presidential debate, and there haven’t been many elections that have included different debate formats, little research has looked at the differences format has upon its audience. In particular, few scholars have examined the effects of such format differences, including the acquisition of political knowledge and motivation to become involved in the campaign process. The current study examines these attitudes, knowledge, and behavioral intentions by comparing reactions to a traditional debate to those of the town hall debate with emailed questions, along with a control group in a controlled experiment conducted in real time. Results suggest that viewers of debates, rather than the control, had significantly greater intention to participate in the campaign. When comparing the traditional and town hall debate, I found that the town hall debate viewers had more positive evaluations than those of the traditional debate. However, although the town hall debate produced more favorable ratings from its viewers, knowledge and intention to participate were not found to be affected by debate format. Implications and directions for future research are discussed.