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Faculty Essay: The Importance of American Presidential Debates

Ben Voth examines this "decisive aspect of American democracy" before the first presidential debate and watching party

The following essay by Dr. Ben Voth, Chair and Associate Professor of Communication Studies, precedes the first presidential debates of the 2012 election year.  The Division of Communication Studies will be hosting watching parties for each of the debates, including post-debate discussion among a team of experts, beginning Wednesday, October 3 at 7 p.m. in O'Donnell Hall in the Owen Arts Center.

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 primary importance in the four-debate series. Typically, viewership falls by half for each debate during October.

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 drew its largest number of viewers in October 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, these SMU professors provide unique insight into how audiences react immediately to the debates.

Dallas area residents and SMU students are invited to campus to participate in live viewing of all four of the debates, followed by audience participation in a debate about the event. The first debate watch party begins at 7 p.m. on October 3 in O’Donnell Auditorium, Room 2130 in the Owens Arts Center at SMU. 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.

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