The Primary Debates Will Showcase Candidates’ Personalities More Than Their Policies
Viewers are more likely to walk away from the debates with opinions on who these candidates are as people — not as politicians
On Wednesday and Thursday, 20 of the 25 Democrats running for president will debate one another, 10 at a time. Each debate will last two hours and will be moderated by a panel of five journalists. Given that there will be 10 candidates on stage for a two-hour event, each candidate can expect to have between five to 10 minutes of speaking time — an allotment that encourages candidates to lean into their bravado more than their brains.
Public reaction to presidential debates has famously focused on non-substantive aspects of the debate, such as candidates’ physical presence or attractiveness. Ever since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated in the first televised presidential debate in 1960, scholars have questioned whether people place more value on substance or polish. Indeed, research shows that while televised debates help voters learn about policy, voters don’t necessarily use that knowledge once they’re in the voting booth. Rather, viewers tend to vote based on their judgments about candidates’ personalities. It’s not just voting: One recent study of 2012 presidential debates found that debate viewers were more likely to engage on social media about the candidates’ facial expressions and body gestures — not anything they, you know, actually said.
Now, research also shows that debates set the discussion for campaigns going forward. That is, if a number of candidates emphasize the same issue — be it climate change, immigration, health care, or impeachment — the more likely it is that issue will become a focal point of the campaign. For candidates, that marks a shift from what’s been up until this point a purely reactionary role: Most candidates, lacking a proper stage to espouse their own ideas, have thus far been asked to respond to the news around them.
Viewers tend to vote based on their judgments about candidates’ personalities.
Yet the truth is that even if they do lean in to their ideas, viewers are more likely…