by Nazneen Ahmed


The cover story on Politico’s front page mere hours after the conclusion of the first presidential debate of the 2012 election summed up the night in a few words: “Not Debatable: Obama Stumbles.” The story echoed similar conclusions reached by other media outlets that spanned the political spectrum, from MSNBC to FoxNews.

Debates have long been considered one of the most important components of an election because they give voters, particularly those who are undecided, a clearer understanding of each candidate’s political platform and plans. However, recent articles suggest that it might not be the debates themselves that truly make a difference in the polls and in voting booths, but the post-debate “spin” offered by the numerous media outlets.

The day before Mitt Romney and President Obama took the stage to debate for the first time, John Sides published an article on the Monkey Cage that discussed how media coverage changes the way viewers consider a debate. He argued that commentators and journalists are quick to reach conclusions about who won the debate, and those analyses influence how voters look at the debate in hindsight. In a 2004 study conducted by Arizona State University political scientists, viewers who simply watched the debate without being exposed to any post-media coverage had a highly favorable view of John Kerry’s debate performance as compared to President Bush’s performance. However, public opinion survey results taken a full day after the debate showed Kerry’s ratings dropping and left Kerry and Bush with smaller gap in evaluations of debate performance.

Researchers concluded that the drop in ratings for Kerry was easily attributable to a post-debate media spin that largely placed Kerry’s debate performance in a negative light. While viewers in the study who didn’t watch media coverage thought that Kerry effectively “won,” the coming days depressed his actual bounce. So close to the election, viewers’ evaluations of the debates ended up being a significant dent in the Kerry campaign. That same theory, if applied to the Obama-Romney debate, might explain the drop in support for Obama in polls conducted after the debate. Beginning immediately after the debate, polls and commentators on several different news channels offered the same negative reaction to Obama’s performance while praising Romney’s presentation.

In a similar study on campaign spin and pitches conducted by Michael Norton and George Goethals, the researchers suggest that voters are particularly reliant on media coverage of the debates because they are highly distrusting of the spin coming out of both candidates’ campaigns. Because a campaign spends so much time pitching their candidate’s upcoming debate performance, they wear out their credibility with the electorate and the job of evaluating a candidate’s performance is left to media analysts and commentators. Media sources, regardless of their partisanship, are still seen as credible, so voters are more likely to transfer their trust from campaigns to journalists when determining how candidates did during the debate.

Voters often watch debates to glean insight on policy issues and platform differences, but ultimately end up framing the debate in a win-loss format that is often influenced by media spin. Media coverage after a debate tends to focus on telling viewers what to think of the debate and of the candidate’s performances. The focus is less on policy and heavy on the contest. Instead of taking away a deeper comprehension of the election and its issues, viewers are more likely to simply focus on post-debate news coverage and highlights.

Only a month away from the election, it appears that candidates and campaigns can’t spin presidential debates into poll numbers. At the end of the day, the media gets the last word.

Additional Sources:

Grabmeier, Jeff. “Research and Innovation Communications.” Media Coverage Influences Value of Presidential Debates for Viewers, Study Finds. The Ohio State University, 24 Sept. 2012. Web. 05 Oct. 2012. <http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/postdebate.htm&gt;.

Voeten, Erik. “Why News Coverage of the Debate May Matter More than the Debate: Part II.” – The Monkey Cage. N.p., 02 Oct. 2012. Web. 05 Oct. 2012. <http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2012/10/02/why-news-coverage-of-the-debate-may-matter-more-than-the-debate-part-ii/&gt;.


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