Electon 2012: Debates Important, but May Not Decide Election

Ben Epstein Photo
DePaul professor Ben Epstein talks about how political ads
can define a candidate. (Photo by Monica Carter)

By Monica Carter
The Red Line Project

Posted: Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012

Just hours before the first presidential debate on Wednesday, DePaul University professors Cathy May and Ben Epstein debated with audience members about just how much debates and media coverage have on election outcomes.

“Presidential debates attract more viewers than any other activity in a campaign,” said May in her opening presentation, part of a weekly speaker series organized by DePaul's Political Science Department.

“Debates are important as they allow for candidate comparison, unlike political conventions where both parties are speaking primarily to supporters. However, debates are orchestrated media events where images and personality are privileged over substantive policy issue.”

May argued that presidential debates have very little impact on the outcome of an election. By the time the debates begin, most people have already decided on how they will vote and rarely do debates change the minds of that segment of the public, she said. May also noted that first debates almost always benefit the challengers and create a problem for the incumbent president.

However, debates do play a public role in how the audience perceives the election and politics in general, she said.

“Debates matter because they reveal who we are as the public and what we think of our political leaders," May said. "For most of us, politics is remote. We never experience or engage in politics in a direct way. What we experience is brought to us through the media.” 

May challenged the audience to view the upcoming debates and politics as theatrical performance or symbolic events and to view political leaders as symbols themselves.  She contended that presidents and political leaders use symbolization to engage in reassurance. For the public, the perception of what is real is more important than reality itself.

“For most Americans, actual politics is not important," she said. "Politics are remote and abstract and for that reason we need symbols. In the absence of information, we have to reassure ourselves. We need these symbols, these political leaders to reduce anxiety of the unknown or uncertain.”

May and Epstein told the audience to look for the ways leaders exasperate threats and then reassure the public during the upcoming political debates. They also said to take note when political performance becomes more important than substance or the issues being addressed.

Both speakers emphasized the implications debates can have on democracy. Debates can be problematic because attention is on performance.  May took this idea a step further by saying the debates can lead to political alienation instead of healthy discussion because they are based on performance.

“This is the illusion of democracy and of political participation among the public,” May said.

Epstein pushed the discussion of politics as entertainment to using digital media to transmit a message.

“There are millions of media outlets and a huge media audience,” Epstein said. “Politics is still trying to figure out the best way to use media.”

Epstein reasoned that the goals of the media are different from that of politicians.

“The media is a for profit business," he said. "They make money by selling political ads. They try to focus on what spurs the most attention. The media favor debates because debates are ready made conflicts.”

The media engage in agenda setting by bringing attention to issues and problems. However, the media also frame the way issues, events and people are seen by an audience and through priming. This, Epstein argued, disenfranchises an audience because only one point of view is being seen.

“Obama’s campaign focused on defining and framing Romney before Romney’s campaign could," he said. "while Romney took a page from Reagan’s campaign book in asking the public ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ ”

Both speakers emphasized that the goals of political campaigns are very different from the goals of the media outlets that cover them. The most important question a person must ask is: "Who is driving the news cycle?"

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