Truth and Context in the 2012 Presidential Debates

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

V. Conclusion

Despite the immense number of lies and the manipulation of facts told by both candidates, the real sticking points of this debate season weren’t Obama’s misleading the public about veteran unemployment or Romney trying to take credit for Massachusetts excellent education record over two decades. No, instead, the memorable moments were found in the quips and humorous moments, however unintentionally. Viewers will remember Obama telling Romney, “The 1980’s called. They want their foreign policy back,” long before they remember that Romney called Russia the United States’ greatest geopolitical foe. Romney’s statements that he loves Big Bird, but wants to defund PBS will stick in the public memory much longer than his statements that he never opposed bailing out the auto industry despite clear evidence to the contrary. And Romney’s “binders full of women” comment will mean more than Obama’s false assertion that he’ll reduce federal taxes to Clinton-era levels.

Viewers don’t seem to latch on to truth and lies that the candidates tell, or if they do, perhaps they only hear the lies they can disagree with and only hear truth where they seek it. It is plausible that debate viewers are victims of the “false consensus effect,” meaning they assume certain statements are correct or incorrect because it is what they and the people that surround them think.42 Psychologist Drury Sherrod said people seek out candidates with whom they already agree.43 This would mean that debate viewers already know who they intend to agree with while watching, and it is unlikely any number of truths, lies, or manipula-tions of fact will influence their opinions and perceptions.

The candidates, Obama and Romney, seemed to fall in line with this theory. Both only made state-ments that would please the voters they were trying to woo, both trying to appear more moderate (in Rom-ney’s case) or more successful in his first term (in Obama’s case) than might be found if facts alone were taken at face value in full context. Exit polling and the election outcome indicate that neither candidate was able to do anything differently to “shake up” the race, so to speak, and so another debate season passed without actually having any major impact on the election. The results suggest that debates are tools of mes-sage reinforcement, not new message conveyance, and as long as truth and lies fit into that framework, they’re fair game for use by candidates.


Acknowledgment

The author is grateful for the guidance of Dr. David Copeland at Elon University.


References

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Davidson, Paul, Alan Gomez, Gregory Korte, Tim Mullaney and Tom Vanden Brook, “Fact check: Claims about Syria, Libya, Iraq scrutinized,” USA TODAY, October 23, 2012, http://www.usatoday.com/story/ news/politics/2012/10/22/fact-check-third-presidential-debate/1650865/, (November 15, 2012).

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Truth and Context in the 2012 Presidential Debates by Rachel Southmayd — 25

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Endnotes

1.) David S. Birdsell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 5.

2.) Sidney Kraus, “Winners of the First 1960 Televised Presidential Debate Between Kennedy and Nixon,” Jour-nal of Communication 46, no. 4 (1996, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/ 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1996.tb01507.x/ abstract).

3.) William Benoit, et al., “A meta-analysis of the effects of viewing U.S. presidential debates,” Communication Monographs 70, no. 4 (2003), http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0363775032000 179133.

4.) Presidential Debates, 10.

5.) “A meta-analysis,” 336.

6.) Ibid.

7.) John Sides, “Do Presidential Debates Really Matter?” Washington Monthly, September/October 2012, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/septemberoctober_2012/ten_miles_square/do_presidential_de-bates_really039413.php (October 21, 2012).

8.) Ibid.

9.) M.J. Stephy, “Top 10 Debate Flubs: Gerald Ford, 1976,” Time, June 13, 2011, http://www.time.com/time/ specials/packages/article/0,28804,2077515_2077516_2077513,00.html (October 21, 2012).

10.) “Do Presidential Debates Really Matter?”

11.) Peggy Noonan, “2012 Debates: This is it, Mitt,” The Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2012, http://online. wsj.com/article/SB1000087239639044391610457802281175138 2342.html (November 15, 2012).

12.) “A meta-analysis,” 336.

13.) “Do Presidential Debates Really Matter?”

14.) “Dubious Denver Debate Declarations,” FactCheck.Org, October 4, 2012, http://factcheck.org/2012/10/ dubious-denver-debate-declarations/ (November 15, 2012).

15.) “2012 presidential debate: President Obama and Mitt Romney’s remarks in Denver on Oct. 3,” The Wash-ington Post, October 3, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/ decision2012/2012-presidential-de-bate-president-obama-and-mitt-romneys-remarks-in-denver-on-oct-3-running-transcript/2012/10/03/24d6eb6e -0d91-11e2-bd1a-b868e65d57eb_story.html, (November 15, 2012).

16.) Paul Davidson, et al., “Debate fact check: 2nd look at taxes, job gains,” USA TODAY, October 4, 2012, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2012/10/03/fact-checking-the-debate/1612241/, (November 15, 2012).

17.) “2012 presidential debate.”

18.) “Dubious Denver Debate Declarations.”

19.) Ibid.

20.) Davidson, et al.

21.) “CNN Poll: Most watchers say Romney debate winner,” CNN, October 3, 2012, http://politicalticker.blogs. cnn.com/2012/10/03/cnn-poll-romney-wins-debate-by-big-margin/, November 15, 2012.

22.) “CBS News Instant Poll: Romney wins first presidential debate,” CBS News, October 3. 2012, http://www. cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7424218n, November 15, 2012.

23.) “Transcript and Audio: Second Presidential Debate,” NPR, October 16, 2012, http://www.npr. org/2012/10/16/163050988/transcript-obama-romney-2nd-presidential-debate, November 15, 2012.

24.) Michael Stratford, “In Debate, Romney Voices Support for Expanding Pell Grant,” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 17, 2012, http://chronicle.com/blogs/decision 2012/2012/10/17/in-debate-romney-voices-support-for-expanding-pell-grant-program/

25.) “FactChecking the Hofstra Debate,” FactCheck.Org, October 17, 2012, http://factcheck. org/2012/10/fact-checking-the-hofstra-debate/, November 15, 2012.

26.) Ibid.

27.) Paul Davidson, et al, “Debate fact check: 2nd look at taxes, job gains,” USA TODAY, October 4, 2012, http://www.usatoday.com/story /news/politics/2012/10/03/fact-checking-the-debate/1612241/, (November 15, 2012).

28.) “FactChecking the Hofstra Debate.”

29.) “Transcript and Audio: Second Presidential Debate.”

30.) “Poll: CNN Poll: Who won the second presidential debate?” CNN, October 16, 2012, http:// www.cnn.com/ POLITICS/pollingcenter/polls/3274, (November 15, 2012).

31.) “Poll: Obama edges Romney in second presidential debate,” CBS News, October 16, 2012, http://www. cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50133279n, (November 15, 2012).

32.) “U.S. Navy Active Ship Force Levels, 1886-present,” Naval History and Heritage Command,” June 10, 2011, http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/org9-4.htm#2000, (November 15, 2012).

33.) “Transcript: Presidential debate, Oct. 22, 2012 (text, video),” Politico, October 22, 2012, http://www.politico. com/news/stories/1012/82712.html, (November 15, 2012).

34.) “Transcript: Presidential debate.”

35.) Mitt Romney, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” New York Times, November 18, 2008, http:// www.nytimes. com/2008/11/19/opinion/19romney.html?_r=1&, (November 15, 2012).

36.) “False Claims in Final Debate,” FactCheck.Org, October 23, 2012, http://factcheck.org/ 2012/10/false-claims-in-final-debate/, (November 15, 2012).

37.) Ibid.

38.) Ibid.

39.) “Poll: Decisive win for Obama in final debate,” CBS News, October 22, 2012, http://www. cbsnews. com/8301-250_162-57537795/poll-decisive-win-for-obama-in-final-debate/ (November 15, 2012).

40.) “CNN Poll: Nearly half of debate watchers say Obama won showdown,” CNN, October 22, 2012, http://po-liticalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/22/cnn-poll-who-won-the-debate/, (November 15, 2012).

41.) “U.S. Presidential Election Center,” Gallup, November 8, 2012, http://www.gallup.com/ poll/154559/US-Presidential-Election-Center.aspx, (November 15, 2012).

42.) Robyn M. Dawes, Insights in Decision Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 179. 43 Drury Sherrod, “Selective Perception of Political Candidates,” The Public Opinion Quarterly 35, no. 4 (1971), http://www.jstor.org/stable/2747672.

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