2012 Archives

The importance of the American Presidential debates

Obama and Romney making their acceptance speeches at their conventions

Election Experts

Matthew WilsonRomney will be looking to score decisive points against the president, but this will be difficult unless Obama provides him an opening with a gaffe of some sort. The challenger will need to look presidential and put the bumblings of the last two weeks behind him, delivering a focused indictment of Obama’s leadership and reminding Americans of the core issues in the election. I will be looking to see if he is able to do this and to effectively stay on-message.

— Matt Wilson

SMU professors are providing expert commentary on the campaign for the White House, from political debates to polls, from education to immigration. Read more.


Spinning the Dials

Real Time Response Meter
Real Time Response Meter

SMU Professors Rita Kirk and Dan Schill will be in Denver on Wednesday overseeing a group of participants recording immediate reactions to the debate by spinning dials that measure their minute-to-minute responses.

It's called Real Time Response and it does just that: It measures participants' reactions to the positions, posturing and in-fighting of the candidates almost as soon as the words leave their mouths.

October 3, 2012

Watch Party:
The SMU debate watch party begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday, October 3, in O’Donnell Auditorium (Room 2130) of the Owen Arts Center. It is free and open to the public.


By Ben Voth
SMU Communication Studies

On Wednesday evening, more than 20 million Americans will tune in for one of the most decisive aspects of American democracy-- the presidential debates.  Since at least 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon debated, millions of prospective voters have tuned in to their television sets to gain a relatively unmediated sense of the political options for the presidency. 

It is possible and even probable that 60 million or more Americans may watch the debate Wednesday night.  The first debate is also of first importance among the four debate series.  Typically, viewership of the debates falls by half for each debate during October. 

Ben Voth
Ben Voth is chair of SMU's Communication Studies division in Meadows School of the Arts. An expert in debate and persuasion, he is director of debate and speech programs at SMU. He has coached more than a dozen national champions in collegiate speech events.

By comparison, televised presidential debates tend to dwarf the political conventions that take place in August and September.  Viewership of the conventions has been declining for some time and contracted considerably in 2012.  This is not the case for the televised presidential debates.

The debates can make a huge difference for the two contestants.  Since 1960, Gallup polling indicates noticeable persuasive effects.  Only in 1984, did the October debates fail to produce a change in the polling of the two major candidates (Reagan and Mondale).  Poll changes since 1960 range from 12 points for President Bush in 2000 to one point for President Bush Sr. in 1988.  

The October 3 debate will constitute the most significant communication opportunity for both President Obama and candidate Romney.  Very few communication outlets offer a comparable audience. 

As a matter of comparison, the Saturday Night Live skit about the debates on Saturday will likely attract about 3 million viewers.  Saturday Night Live attracted its largest number of viewers in October of 2008 when Sarah Palin joined Tina Fey on the show.  That show attracted 17 million viewers which is exponentially larger than the average viewership of the NBC comedy show. 

SMU Communication Studies professors Rita Kirk and Dan Schill will provide communication support to CNN’s coverage of the debates.  As specialists in dial testing, SMU professors provide unique insight into how audiences react immediately to the debates. 

On campus, Dallas area residents and SMU students are invited for all four of the debates to participate in live viewing and debating about the election.  The first event on October 3 will take place in the O Donnell auditorium of the Owens Arts Center at SMU beginning at 7 p.m.  The viewing of the live debate will begin at 8 p.m. 

The event is hosted by the SMU debate program directed by professors Ben Voth and Chris Salinas.  The event is free and open to the public. 


The times and locations of the other watch parties are:

  • Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. in O’Donnell Auditorium (Room 2130) of Owen Arts Center, 6101 Bishop Blvd. this debate is between Biden and Ryan.
  • Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. in Room 241 in Umphrey Lee Center, 3300 Dyer Street. This debate is between Obama and Romney.
  • Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. in Room 241 in Umphrey Lee Center, 3300 Dyer Street. This debate is between Obama and Romney.

All events are free and open to the public. After viewing the debate broadcasts, community members will have an opportunity to participate in a public debate about the event. The SMU debate program will moderate the event and provide a balloting opportunity for those in attendance.

In addition, SMU has assembled a team of experts to talk to the news media about the debates and the campaigns.

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