Truth and Context in the 2012 Presidential Debates

By Rachel Southmayd
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2013, Vol. 4 No. 1 | pg. 3/4 |

Exit Surveys

Three exit surveys were held to ask questions on their demographics and their perception of can-didates, along with one open-ended question. (See Table 1 for full survey results from this section of analy-sis.). In a survey after Debate 1, there were 20 Democrats, 1 Republican and 12 in the Independents/Other category. In the second survey, there were 6 Democrats and 4 in the Independents/Other category. In the third survey, there were 20 Democrats, 2 Republicans, 6 in the Independents/Other category, and 1 with no answer. The participants were composed of 38 females and 28 males in thee surveys combined. One did not indicate his or her gender.

Obama was their chosen candidate for 23, 8 and 23 participants in each of three surveys respectively.

Romney was chosen as their favored candidate by 3, 0, and 2 participants in each of three surveys. There were three participants who favored the other candidate.

Including responses from all three debates, 77 percent of respondents said the debate did not influ-ence for whom they intended to vote. This supports Sides’ theory that presidential debates don’t actually matter in determining the outcome of an election. Just four respondents across all three said the debate performance changed their mind about their candidate selection. Across all debates, the respondents, who said they were moderately to extremely politically aware, also ranked the performances of both candidates in terms of truth with little variation. They gave Obama a “truthfulness ranking” of 3.8 out of 5, while giving Rom-ney just 2.6 out of 5. More respondents also said Obama was either “straightforward” or “somewhat straight-forward” far more often than they did Romney, who was more often ranked “somewhat straightforward” or “not straightforward.”

The opinions and preferences of the survey-takers were very skewed towards the Democratic Party and President Obama (65 percent identified as Democrat and 76 percent said they were going to vote for Obama). At all three events combined, just three people identified as Republican. Within the surveys, there were also several contradictory answers (respondents who identified as voting for a specific candidate also said the debate had left them still undecided). Several respondents also left questions unanswered.

Table 1

The second half of the exit survey included qualitative answers about the candidates’ debate perfor-mances. Respondents were asked to identify the topics about which the candidates had been truthful or un-truthful. In the three debates, the greatest percentage of respondents ranked Obama “truthful” about “health care” for Debate 1 and “foreign policy” for Debates 2 and 3, as shown in Table 2. When another question was asked, on which topic was the candidate not truthful, most people chose “Don’t know,” followed by “economy.”

Obama’s opponent, Romney, had the greatest percentage of respondents say he was “truthful” about the “economy” for Debates 1 and 2. For Debate 3, the largest number of respondents said “don’t know.” When they were asked on which topic was the candidate not truthful, the greatest percentage of respondents said he was “not truthful” about the “economy” for Debate 1 (curiously the same topic about which he was also “truthful”). For Debate 2, there was not a dominant category. For Debate 3, it was “don’t know,” followed by “foreign policy.”

It is worth noting that the “economy” is highly ranked as a “truthful” and a “not truthful” topic for both Obama and Romney in debates, perhaps indicating that the respondents are unable to identify when a candi - date is telling a truth or lying about the economy, despite the fact that they consider themselves to possess a moderate to high level of political awareness. The alternative interpretation is that both Romney and Obama told truths and lies about the economy and that the respondents just focused on those that fit the framework they had already established about a particular candidate.

Table 2

The Debates’ Impact on the Election

By examining polling numbers from before and after each debate, it can be seen that none caused a dramatic shift in numbers for either Obama or Romney (see Table 3).

Table 3

It can be seen that Romney increased (marginally) in popularity among all voters polled as Election Day approached, while Obama decreased (by a single point), again, not dramatically. At no point during debate season did Romney surpass Obama in polling numbers, and was unable to unseat the incumbent president on November 6, 2012. No media outlet of significance said any debate was a “game changer” or likely to affect the election.

In fact, with the incumbent winning the presidency, with the Republican Party retaining control of the House and the Democratic Party keeping their majority in the Senate, the 2012 election was a “status quo” one, meaning nothing changed. Arguably, all three debates could have been skipped altogether without af - fecting the outcome whatsoever. This is, of course, disputable. Perhaps Romney might have experienced a late surge had he not had the debates to limit his growth. Or, maybe Obama would have won by a far wider margin if he hadn’t had the debates to tarnish his image at all. This is all speculation, of course.

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