Skip to main content Accessibility help

Political Knowledge and Exposure to the 2012 US Presidential Debates: Does Debate Format Matter?

  • Jason Turcotte (a1) and R. Kirby Goidel (a2)

Extant literature shows a positive link between presidential debates and political knowledge, with findings strongest for low-information voters. Considering presidential debates continue to retain a mass audience, they fulfill an invaluable civic function. Less clear is whether knowledge effects hold across debate formats and agenda topics. Using an experimental method that exposes a sample of undergraduate students to the 2012 US presidential debates, this article explores variance in knowledge effects across formats and topics. We find citizens can learn about issues and candidates but debate format and agenda topics may mediate the effects. We discuss the broader democratic implications of these findings and directions for future debate research.

Hide All
Aldrich, John H., Sullivan, John L., and Borgida, Eugene. 1989. “Foreign Affairs and Issue Voting: Do Presidential candidates ‘waltz before a blind audience?’” The American Political Science Review 83 (1): 123–41.
Almond, Gabriel A. 1960. The American People and Foreign Policy. New York: Praeger.
Bennett, Stephen E. 1996. “Know-nothings Revisited Again.” Political Behavior 18 (3): 219–33.
Benoit, William L., and Hansen, Glenn J.. 2001. “Presidential Debate Questions and the Public Agenda.” Communication Quarterly 49 (2): 130–41.
Benoit, William L., and Hansen, Glenn J.. 2004. “Presidential Debate Watching, Issue Knowledge, Character Evaluation, and Vote Choice.” Human Communication Research 30(1): 121-144.Benoit, William L., Glenn J. Hansen, and Rebecca M. Verser. 2003. “A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Viewing U.S. Presidential Debates.” Communication Monographs 70 (4): 335–50.
Benoit, William L., McKinney, Mitchell S., and Stephenson, Michael T.. 2002. “Effects of Watching 2000 Campaign Presidential Primary Debates.” Journal of Communication 52 (2): 316–31.
Carlin, Diana B., Vigil, Tammy, Buehler, Susan, and McDonald, Kelly. 2008. The Third Agenda in U.S. Presidential Debates: Debate Watch and Viewer Reactions, 1996-2004. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Chaffee, Steven H. 1978. “Presidential Debaters – Are They Helpful to Voters?” Communication Monographs 45: 330–46.
Cho, Jaeho, and Choy, Syng Pom. 2011. “From Podium to Living Room: Elite Debates as an Emotional Catalyst for Citizen Communicative Engagements.” Communication Research 38 (6): 778804.
Cho, Jaeho, and Ha, Yerheen. 2012. “On the Communicative Underpinnings of Campaign Effects: Presidential Debates, Citizen Communication, and Polarization in Evaluations of Candidates.” Political Communication 29: 184204.
Cohen, Jeffrey E. 2008. The Presidency in the Era of 24-Hour News. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Delli Carpini, Michael X., and Keeter, Scott. 1993. “Measuring Political Knowledge: Putting First Things First.” American Journal of Political Science 37 (4): 1179–206.
Delli Carpini, Michael X., and Keeter, Scott. 1996. What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Dolan, Kathleen A., and Holbrook, Thomas M.. 2001. “Knowing Versus Caring: The Role of Affect and Cognition in Political Perceptions.” Political Psychology 22 (1): 27–44.
Druckman, James N. 2003. “The Power of Television Images: The First Kennedy-Nixon Debate Revisited.” The Journal of Politics 65 (2): 559571.
Dunaway, Johanna. 2008. “Markets, Ownership, and the Quality of Campaign News Coverage.” The Journal of Politics 70 (4): 1193–202.
Hillygus, D. Sunshine, and Henderson, Michael. 2010. “Political Issues and the Dynamics of Vote Choice in 2008.” Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties 20 (2): 241–69.
Holbrook, Thomas M. 1999. “Political Learning from Presidential Debates.” Political Behavior 21 (1): 6789.
Holbrook, Thomas M. 2002. “Presidential Campaigns and the Knowledge Gap.” Political Communication 19 (4): 437–54.
Jackson-Beeck, Marilyn, and Meadow, Robert G.. 1979. “The Triple Agenda of Presidential Debates.” Public Opinion Quarterly 43 (2): 173–80.
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall, and Birdsell, David S.. 1988. Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate. New York: Oxford University Press.
Just, Marion R., Crigler, Ann N., Alger, Dean E., Cook, Timothy E., Kern, Montague, and West, Darrell M.. 1996. Crosstalk: Citizens, Candidates, and the Media in a Presidential Campaign. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kaid, Linda L., Mitchell, McKinney S., and Tedesco, John C.. 2000. Civic Dialogue in the 1996 Presidential Campaign: Candidates, Media, and Public Voices. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Lang, Gladys E., and Lang, Kurt. 1978. “Immediate and Delayed Responses to a Carter-Ford Debate: Assessing Public Opinion.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 42 (3): 322–41.
Lanoue, David J. 1992. “One That Made a Difference: Cognitive Consistency, Political Knowledge, and the 1980 Presidential Debate.” Public Opinion Quarterly 56: 168–84.
Lewis-Beck, Michael S., Jacoby, William G., Norpoth, Helmut, and Weisberg, Herbert F.. 2008. The American Voter Revisited. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
McLeod, Jack M., Bybee, Carl R., and Durall, Jean A.. 1982. “Equivalence of Informed Political Participation: The 1976 Presidential Debates as a Source of Influence.” Communication Research 6 (4): 463–87.
Miller, Arthur H., and MacKuen, Michael. 1979. “Learning About the Candidates: The 1976 Presidential Debates.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 43 (3): 326–46.
Patterson, Thomas E. 1980. The Mass Media Election: How Americans Choose Their President. New York: Praeger.
Prior, Markus. 2005. “News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 49 (3): 577–92.
Prior, Markus. 2012. “Who Watches Presidential Debates? Measurement Problems in Campaign Effects Research.” Public Opinion Quarterly 76 (2): 350–63.
Schrott, Peter R., and Lanoue, David J.. 2013. “The Power and Limitations of Televised Presidential Debates: Assessing the Real Impact of Candidate Performance on Public Opinion and Vote Choice.” Electoral Studies (forthcoming). Available at
Wells, Robert A., and King, Erika G.. 1994. “Prestige Newspaper Coverage of Foreign Affairs in the 1990 Congressional Campaigns.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 71 (3): 652–64.
Zhu, Jian-Hua, Milavsky, Ronald J., and Biswas, Rahul. 1994. “Do Televised Debates Affect Image Perception More Than Issue Knowledge? A Study of the First 1992 Presidential Debate.” Human Communication Research 20 (3): 302–33.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

PS: Political Science & Politics
  • ISSN: 1049-0965
  • EISSN: 1537-5935
  • URL: /core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed