Since the first televised debate between Vice President Richard Nixon (R-Calif.) and Senator John Kennedy (D-Mass.), the election process has never been the same. Despite the seemingly important democratic aspect of presidential debates, the actual impact of debates on voters’ perceptions of potential candidates is highly doubted by many scholars. Potential candidates, journalists, and a few scholars have expressed, however, the importance of presidential debates in directing voters’ attitudes (White, 1982; Asher, 1988; Reagan, 1990). For instance, President Reagan was quoted as saying “I almost blew the whole race during my first debate” (Reagan, 1990, p. 327). He believed so strongly that his poor performance against Mondale in the 1984 debate almost caused him to lose the presidency.
The purpose of this paper will be to refute claims made by doubtful scholars as to the importance of presidential debates. Throughout this paper, studies will be presented which directly refute the idea that debates do not have a substantial effect on voter perception. It will also explore the evolution of the selection process and how that has directly affected the importance of debates. In addition, it will provide evidence of the importance of presidential debates by evaluating multiple theories (Neustadt, Light, and Presidential Roles Theory) of presidential success and show how debates can be central in the foundation of their future achievements as president. This analysis will also explore the sinister aspects of debates in which the media uses sound bites to direct voter perceptions and use miscomprehension among voters to distort their views about potential candidates.
Shift in Focus: Party to Candidate Issues
In recent years, the public have been less attracted to political parties. They have tended to shift focus more on the candidates. The candidates are not, however, the major reason for the public’s focus. The focus is more on the issues each candidate stresses during their campaign. In a recent study, Martin Wattenberg (2004) found that the idea that presidential elections are just popularity contests is false. His results provided that most candidates in recent elections who were perceived as the most popular actually lost. Wattenberg found, however, that one major value central to the evaluations of potential voters are their perceptions of a candidate’s stance on issues.
If the American populous is focusing more on the issues of each candidate, it is important for these potential candidates to attract enough media attention as possible in order to make their stance known. The best way to spread one’s stance on certain issues is to have it televised instead of giving it out to second-hand sources such as talk shows because the networks will only run certain sound bites that may distort the stance of the candidates, which in turn distorts the perception of the voter. Therefore, it is best to have an open live debate in which...