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The evening of September 26th, 1960, marked the date for the first Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate. Even though it only ran 59 minutes, to this day it is still considered to be an important debate to be studied in the science of political behavior. It was the first televised presidential debate, where a majority of those who watched on TV thought Kennedy had won, as opposed to those who listened on the radio believed Nixon had come out on top. In the Druckman paper, he revisits this historical debate to see how television affects political behavior, what voters learn about candidates and whether the increase in television has distracted voters from the issues. Particularly, Druckman examines how TV images during a presidential debate affect: the criteria viewers use to evaluate a candidate, the overall evaluation of the candidate, and what the viewer learns about politics.
First, Druckman has four different hypotheses before beginning his experiment. His first being, “television viewers will be significantly more likely than audio listeners to use personality criteria (e.g., integrity) when evaluating the candidates (debaters), all else constant.” Suppose there are two candidates, one with a better personality and another with a preferable view on issues. Druckman believes the candidate with the better personality will benefit from TV, while the other candidate would on radio. His second hypothesis states, “television viewers will learn significantly more than audio listeners, all else constant.” TV visuals often increase attention of viewer and enhance the memory and learning of the viewer. His third, predicts “sophisticated individuals will learn significantly more than non-sophisticated individuals, regardless of medium, all else constant” based off of previous work. His last, stating “non-sophisticated individuals will learn significantly more from television than audio, whereas sophisticated individuals will exhibit a significantly smaller or no difference in learning from the different media, all else constant.” People already knowledgeable about politics may not depend on TV images to grab their attention. Overall, these hypotheses are important because none of them have been used on the Nixon-Kennedy debate; this is a new prediction that takes a new view of the historical debate, in hopes to find data on political behavior.
The independent variables in the experiment are the medium used to broadcast the first Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, the perception of the candidates image and personality traits, perceptions of the candidates’ issue positions, and political predispositions and demographics. The two mediums used to broadcast are TV (audio and visual) or radio (only audio). While the dependent variables include: criteria for specific candidate evaluations, overall evaluations, viewer/listener learning, and who won the debate.
The experiment included 171 summer students at the University of Minnesota with no prior knowledge of the Kennedy-Nixon debate regarding the differing views from those who experienced it on TV versus the radio. They were given a brief questionnaire ahead of time to determine demographics. Next, the participant’s students were randomly assigned into two groups (one group would watch the debate on TV and the other would listen to the debate on the radio), given snacks and placed in a “living room” setting. Druckman then put the debate into historical context for the participants and showed them pictures of Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. After watching or listening to the debate, the participants were given a test to determine their candidate evaluations (who won the debate based on a 7-point scale), learning, and then they were debriefed.
The survey questions after the debate included who the students thought was the winner of the debate on a 7-point scale, their perceived leadership effectiveness, integrity, and empathy, as well as ideology, issue agreement, Catholicism, and a five question knowledge quiz after the debate.
Results of the experiment show several key discoveries were made. First, both TV and radio participants proved perception of leadership effectiveness is important. The more favorable someone viewed Nixon’s leadership skills relative to Kennedy, the more likely they would view Nixon as the debate winner. TV viewers replied on both leadership effectiveness and integrity when evaluating candidates as oppose to radio listeners who only replied on leadership effectiveness. Issue agreement remains a significant factor for audio listeners but not for television viewers where TV primes its audience to reply on more on perceptions of candidate image. TV viewers were also more prone to be pro-Kennedy since TV enhances the weight viewers attach to a candidate’s integrity. Overall TV viewers were more likely to think Kennedy had won the debate. It was also found that those who watched the debate rather than listening to it, learned more information based on a five-question knowledge quiz that was given to the participants after the debate. Consistent with Druckman’s hypothesis, sophisticated participants learned more than nonsophisticates. To conclude, TV images have a great affect on viewers, which in turn, can alter the way they evaluate candidates in a debate. Kennedy may have done better in the debate since he was perceived to look “better” than Nixon on TV.
Overall, I believe that the experiment had many interesting findings that have helped us learn more about how TV can affect the political behavior of citizens. However, if I were to recreate the experiment I would change a few aspects. I feel that a larger sample size with a more diverse make up would have been better for the experiment. College students only account for the ages of 18-25, which is not a large spread. Lastly, the sample underrepresented Republicans. If I were to conduct this experiment myself, I would be sure to include a more diverse group and make sure to have a more level playing field.
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