The Veep Debate, and What Commentators Don’t Understand about Who Watched It

by John Sides on October 12, 2012 · 5 comments

in Campaigns and elections

All throughout last night’s debate, I read a zillion tweets wondering how the exchange between Biden and Ryan, deemed “aggressive quarreling” on the front page of my New York Times this morning, would “play” with undecided voters or “Middle America” or whatever.  One notion was that ordinary voters would get turned off by the combat and go watch baseball.

Here’s some breaking news: the kind of people who choose to watch a vice-presidential debate instead of baseball or football or a cooking show are not sensitive souls who curl up into a ball at the first sign of disagreement between politicians.  People who choose to watch political conflict can deal with it.  Those who can’t—or just aren’t interested in the first place—are watching something else.  Research by political scientists Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson shows this.

I also found it a bit rich that media commentators wondered how the debate would “play” with voters.  The answer to that question, of course, is how it “played” with the news media.  The media supplies the interpretation of events like debates, and that helps shape how voters understand them too.  As Justin Wolfers put it:

Columnists writing about what columnists will write about the debate, and it’s turtles all the way down.

And if you don’t believe that, Mark Halperin is happy to illustrate:

Ultimately, the voters most likely to react to the “aggressive quarreling” will do so because the media told them to react to it.

{ 5 comments }

K. Street October 12, 2012 at 10:59 am

The “Mark Halperinization” of our media is a huge impediment to social progress and hurts America. We need more sites like this and sites like this need more promotion!

LFC October 12, 2012 at 12:35 pm

I don’t have a working TV now so I watched the debate on my computer, via the PBS NewsHour live feed. Or I should say, I tried to watch the debate that way: the thing kept glitching, stopping, video/audio out of sync, etc. (It had worked ok for the pres. debate.) Toward the end I just listened on the radio. I paid no heed at all to twitter or any other simultaneous commentaries as I’m not v. good at divided attention.

On the basis of the roughly 75-80 percent of the debate that I heard/saw, I formed a conclusion/impression about how the candidates did immediately after it finished, before I saw or heard any press, blog or other commentary. My initial reactions to this kind of ‘event’ usually don’t significantly change as a result of exposure to commentary, though my reactions may get tweaked, for lack of a better word. (And in this case, a reading of the full transcript might tweak them too, esp. since I missed a certain fraction of the words spoken.) In short, I know there is at least one person as to whom this post’s claim that the media shapes/determines reactions is false.

Efficacious October 12, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Yeah of course. It was inevitable that the race was going to tighten but the reason why Romney gained traction so quickly in the polls after the first debate is because our media hyped it up so damn much. The average American doesn’t really care who ‘wins’ and who ‘loses’; the main thing regular folks would have noticed was that neither candidate really failed to speak of anything truly substantive.

Anne Zoeller October 13, 2012 at 2:20 pm

I have enjoyed reading the research of Professors Arceneaux and Johnson. I’m an involved voter, but I hate watching conflict. I find it hard to watch debates. Reading a transcript is fine, I’m just too chicken to gut that rabbit.

Ignorant Voter October 14, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Yes, I am so incapable of critical thought that I require the press to form an opinion for me. How insulting that last line is. Like LFC’s assertion above, I am a second person who proves this post’s claim as false.

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