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Abstract: The Medium Is Not the Message

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Is Seeing — or Hearing — Believing? Reactions to Listening to the 2004 Presidential Debates With and Without Video. Mike Dorsher, Ph.D., assistant professor  University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Abstract: The Medium Is Not the Message. Method: Quasi-Experimental.

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Is Seeing — or Hearing — Believing?

Reactions to Listening to the 2004 Presidential Debates With and Without Video

Mike Dorsher, Ph.D., assistant professor  University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Abstract: The Medium Is Not the Message

Method: Quasi-Experimental

  • Quasi-experimental study, inspired by the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon “Great Debate”
  • 175 participants watched the 2004 debates on TV or listened without the video
  • Few significant differences in the reactions of viewers and listeners
  • Both groups selected their winner based mainly on who was most “presidential” and most eloquent
  • Experiment conducted synchronously during first and third Bush-Kerry debates and the Cheney-Edwards vice presidential debate.
  • Total of 175 participants during the three debates, randomly assigned to watch a debate or listen to the telecast without video.
  • Participants surveyed for biases before debate and reactions immediately after each debate, before hearing any commentary.

Literature Review: Form Wins Over Substance

Results: Data Support 5 of 6 Hypotheses

  • Surveys of viewers all showed Kennedy upstaged Nixon in the first televised presidential debate in 1960.
    • Nixon, however, claimed that most radio listeners thought he won, implying he won on substance if not form.
  • Televised presidential debates change few voters’ minds.
    • But especially strong or weak performances sometimes make a crucial marginal difference on election outcomes.
  • Apart from party and candidate biases, the best predictor of the debate winner has been how “presidential” each candidate appeared.
  • In two studies where students watched or listened to videotape of the Kennedy-Nixon debate, similar majorities of listeners and viewers thought Kennedy won.
  • Kraus (1996) concluded that Nixon probably did win among radio listeners but said more research was needed on form vs. substance in televised presidential debates.
  • In line with subsequent national surveys, most of this study’s participants said Kerry beat Bush both times and Cheney bettered Edwards.
  • H1: Supported -- The only significant difference between viewers and listeners was that viewers, surprisingly, rated Cheney even higher than listeners did.
  • H2: Supported --The “presidential” variable had the highest correlations with the candidates’ overall debate ratings, and it accounted for 77% of the variance in a hierarchical multiple regression, both p<.01
  • H3: Not supported – Edwards rated 50% higher than Cheney on looks yet lost the debate; relatively low correlations between candidates’ looks and overall ratings.
  • H4: Supported – Low perceived nervousness correlated with high ratings, p<.01
  • H5: Supported – Highly rated opening and closing statements correlated with high overall ratings, p<.01
  • H6: Supported – High eloquence ratings correlated with high overall ratings, and eloquence ranked second in the multiple regression, explaining 7% of the variance in overall ratings, both p<.01

Hypotheses: Viewers, Listeners ‘See’ Same Debate

  • Viewers’ ratings on who “won” will not differ significantly from listeners’
  • For viewers and listeners, high overall candidate ratings will depend on high ratings for:
    • Seeming “presidential”
    • Good looks
    • Not seeming nervous
    • Good opening and closing statements
    • Eloquence

Conclusion: Look and Sound Presidential

  • Candidates are more likely to win debates if they’re “presidential” and eloquent.
  • This study strengthened previous findings that presidential debate viewers and listeners draw similar conclusions, because it:
    • Controlled for pre-debate biases
    • Controlled for sound quality differences between TV and radio
    • Surveyed right after each debate, eliminating commentators’ influence
  • For future studies: Scale the “presidential” variable; include a video-only group.
  • This is a further bit of evidence that Kennedy beat Nixon on radio, too.
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