Truth and Context in the 2012 Presidential Debates

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


Today’s modern age has led to a plethora of information available at the fingertips of all voters. During the 2012 presidential election cycle and specifically, during the three presidential debates that occurred in the fall, candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spewed facts and political rhetoric, often seemingly with little regard for the truth or context of those facts. An overabundance of information available to today’s voters could not help them to separate the truth from the lies told by the candidates, especially as they seemed far more interested by buzz-worthy moments and personal digs than actual facts. Through media analysis of three presidential debates and three surveys, this study found out that presidential debates are tools to rein-force old messages rather than convey new ones.

I. Introduction

Since the mid-20th century, the televised debates that precede presidential elections have become a staple of the campaign season. In what has become traditional debate format, there is little room for live fact-checking on stage and many moderators neglect to challenge candidates in their responses, so media pick up the slack, both during and after, fact-checking and providing background and context on statements made within the debates. Without such context, the average viewer may have little to no concept of how the given fact or statistic actually fits in to the larger policy, economic or social issue and is left only with the perception the candidate gave, rather than the complete picture. This paper sought to prove that in the widening gap between conservatives and liberals in the United States, 2012 candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney resorted to using facts and figures at will, often incorrectly or out of context, in an attempt to win voter favor and capitalize on polarizing viewpoints.

II. Literature Review

In the 1960 election season, the United States was introduced to a new, radical campaign tool: a tele - vised debate between the presidential candidates from the nation’s main political parties.1 The importance of the introduction of this highly visual medium as a critical tool in the presidential race was affirmed when next-day polling of the first televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy concluded that those who had listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won, while those that had watched considered Kennedy the victor.2

Since the 1960 debate, eleven general campaigns in the United States have included televised de-bates.3 Rhetorical scholar J. Jeffery Auer identified six major characteristics of every debate: “1) a confronta-tion, 2) in equal and adequate time, 3) of matched contestants, 4) on a stated proposition, 5) to gain an audi-ence decision” and 6) rule governance.”4 The debates offer a unique opportunity to see the candidates side by side on an even playing field, for an extended period of time (90 minutes is the traditional length) and with the opportunity for more spontaneous statements and interaction (as opposed to scripted, rehearsed speeches and interviews).5

Some scholars argue the debates play an important role in the election process. Debates can assist undecided voters in making decisions, prevent possible partisan ship-jumpers from voting for the other party, cause increased turnout on Election Day and most basically, provide any and all voters with more information, regardless of whether they pick their candidate based partly or solely on the debate at all.6 But still, others point to studies that suggest the presidential debates have had very little effect on the ultimate election result; the candidate leading at the time surrounding the debate goes on to win.7

In other words, there have been no significant occurrences of “game-changers” (race upsets) as a result of debates, a phrase so often used by modern media to describe debate performances. While the debates are popular television events and they do teach new information, that new information is unlikely to change the minds of any viewers.8 When talking about truth and lies, in some cases, as in an 1976 debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the viewing audience is incapable of even noticing when a candidate is making a gaffe, or incorrect statement, until the news media bring it to their attention. In the 1976 debate, Ford famously said there was no Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe, clearly an incorrect statement.9 How-ever, despite this egregious error, there was no huge flip-flop in polling numbers and the downward slide of Carter continued at the same pace it had before the debate.10

By looking at studies of past presidential debates, it can be seen that the activities that occur during televised debates are predictable, and while many argue, can be significant, no televised debate in modern history has proved to be a “game-changer” in the trend of the election. Before the first presidential debates of 2012, columnist Peggy Noonan said, “It is true that the debate has the potential to alter the dynamic of the election. A good or great one, followed up by an improved, more serious campaign, could make everything new again. A bad one would do damage indeed.”11 Noonan was echoing the sentiments of Benoit and his co-authors,12 although this paper would prove that the debates really turned out as Sides concluded,13 having very little impact on the ultimate outcome of the election.

III. Methods

Two main methods were used to gather information for this paper. The first method used was a combination of media and debate analysis. Media outlets (both television, print and online) focused on certain points in the debate where the candidates told lies or gave facts out of context. By looking at these facts and their own context within the debate transcripts, a more comprehensive framework can be found with which to analyze these moments. In other words, topics specified by media outlets indicate what moments within the debate are worth closer examination.

The second was the use of exit surveys at three debate-watching events at Elon University. At each of these events, which were co-hosted by College Republicans, College Democrats and the Political Forum, a nonpartisan group, all students were invited to come and watch the televised debate in a common space on campus. At the conclusion of each of the debates, the attending students were asked to complete a two-page survey that contained a variety of questions about each of the candidates’ performance and their perception of the lies told or facts given out of context. However, it should be noted that there were inherent problems with the results of this method. The respondents and thereby, results, were very skewed to the Democratic Party and Obama. But, despite this flaw, there are still a few interesting conclusions to be drawn.

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