Research and Symposia


Post-1996 Symposium
Post-1992 Research
Post-1988 Symposium

Post-1996 Symposium: A Review of the 1996 Debates

Symposium held October 20-21, 1997
George Washington University
Washington, D.C.


Panel Discussion: Reversing the Trend in the Youth Vote

This panel addressed the low voter turnout among young people in the 1996 election (18 percent). Panelists discussed whether the debates potentially generate youth interest.

Moderator: Cokie Roberts, Correspondent, ABC News

Kathleen deLaski, Director of News Programming, America Online

Dr. Diana Carlin, University of Kansas; National Coordinator, DebateWatch 96

Fred Yang, Senior Vice President and Partner, Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, President, The George Washington University

Garrett Peel, George Washington University Senior and Coordinator for Youth Services and Events at 1996 Republican National Convention

Douglas Miner, George Washington University Senior, former president of GWU's College Democrats and organizer of GWU voter registration drive

Sound Bites and Spot News vs. In-Depth Continuing Coverage:
The Role of Journalists in Covering Presidential Campaigns

Moderator: Stephen Roberts, Shapiro Professor of Media and Public Affairs, The George Washington University

Susan Page, White House Bureau Chief, USA Today

Bob Fuss, Congressional/White House Correspondent, NBC/Mutual Radio News

Walter Mears, Vice President and Columnist, Associated Press

John Cochran, Congressional Correspondent, ABC News

Bob Franken, Congressional Correspondent, CNN

Christopher Arterton, Dean, George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management

Is the Public Well Informed About Presidential Candidates by Advertisements, Conventions, Free Air Time, News Coverage, Commentary, and Debates?

Moderator: Michael Barone, Senior Staff Editor, Reader's Digest

John Seigenthaler, Founder, First Amendment Center

Frank Sesno, Senior Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief, CNN

Geneva Overholser, Ombudsman, Washington Post; former editor, Des Moines Register

Frank Newport, Editor-in-Chief, The Gallup Poll

Overview of Legal Considerations Affecting the Candidate Selection Process

Keynote Speaker: Lewis K. Loss, Esq., partner, Ross, Dixon & Masback, L.L.P.; General Counsel to the Commission on Presidential Debates

Debate: The Role of Debates in the General Election

Moderator: Gwen Ifill, Network Correspondent, NBC News

Richard Neustadt, Professor, Harvard University; Chairman, Commission on Presidential Debates - Advisory Committee on Candidate Selection

Ross Clayton Mulford, Esq., partner, Hughes & Luce, L.L.P.; Outside General Counsel to Perot '92 and Perot '96

Direct Candidate Exchange: How to Improve Debate Format

Moderator: Tom Oliphant, Columnist, The Boston Globe

Ann Compton, ABC News; panelist, 1988 and 1992 presidential debates

Hal Bruno, ABC News; panelist, 1976 Vice Presidential Debate; moderator, 1992 Vice Presidential Debate

Michael D. McCurry, Assistant to the President and White House Press Secretary

John Buckley, Senior Vice President of Communications, Fannie Mae


Post-1992 Research: The 1992 Presidential Debates in Focus

Edited by Diana P. Carlin and Mitchell S. McKinney
Praeger Press, Westport, CT

During the 1992 election, the CPD sponsored research to assess the value of the presidential debates to voters. The study analyzed debate content and format as assessed by sixty focus groups.

Findings were published in The 1992 Presidential Debates In Focus, which noted that the study was unique in both structure and scope. The project's rationale grew from the authors' view that focus group methodology had rarely been used to measure voter learning from presidential debates. The researchers sought to gather data from a national sampling of voters, an even more uncommon feature of focus group research. The study analyzed elements of participant reactions to and perceptions of the 1992 debates, highlighting demographic summaries of the 625 voters who participated.

Focus Group Concept

The authors of the study argued that the use of telephone surveys, written questionnaires, semantic differentials, and close-ended questions had limited the public's input into presidential debates. They therefore determined that public opinion could best be gauged through focus groups because of their open-ended nature. While focus groups employ questions generated by a researcher, there is no limiting the topics raised by group members once discussion begins. As a result, perspectives not considered by researchers, candidates, or the media were more likely to be uncovered in a focus group setting. The authors advance the belief that focus groups provide insight into why people believe as they do, how they perceive verbal and nonverbal messages, and what they consider important information and why.

Study Design

A primary goal in designing the project was to assemble groups of likely voters that represented a cross-section of the American electorate. This goal required the recruitment of voters from all regions of the country.

Focus group sites were selected to provide feedback from a wide range of citizens, to capture regional, age, ethnic, gender, racial, and philosophical diversity from groups representing western, eastern, midwestern, and southern locations. Focus group sites were also selected to represent locations with varying population density. Large metropolitan areas including Boston, Detroit, and Cincinnati, were represented, as well as a number of smaller cities including Stephenville, Texas, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Lawrence, Kansas. Fifteen cities were identified throughout the nation to host multiple focus group discussions.

Additionally, control groups were convened at the actual debate sites, and along with those conducted as part of the "debate on the debates" series, a total of 625 voters from eighteen cities, representing sixteen states, participated in the study.

Panel groups, using the same participants for each session, were identified in three locations to examine three primary issues. First, researchers were interested in learning of any "interaction" effect among the debates. Specifically, researchers wanted to know if viewers were able to build on previous debates, or if participants felt that they simply heard the same information in subsequent exchanges. Second, panel groups measured the effects of intervening media attention or the "spin" that occurs between a series of debates. Third, as a result of the varied formats, panel groups were able to directly compare each of the formats.

Participants were asked such questions as:

  • "Has the press coverage of the previous debate(s) in any way influenced your attitudes about the candidates or the issues?"
  • "What did you learn about either candidate or the issues in this debate that you did not learn in the previous debate(s)?"
  • "Did you detect any difference in candidates' strategies from the last presidential debate?"

Chapter Summaries


This chapter outlined the study's structure and discussed recruiting procedures and study execution. Demographic analyses of the 625 participants was provided, including party affiliation, ethnic background, occupation, level of interest in the campaign, age, gender, and candidate preferences both pre- and post-debate.


Included in this section was an examination of focus groups as a research methodology. The history of focus groups was traced concluding with their current status and role in political campaigns. The advantages and disadvantages of focus groups were explained and applied to the structure of the 1992 presidential debate study.


Findings from the fourteen focus groups held during the "debate over the debates" period were detailed in this chapter, which occurred in September when Bush and Clinton strategists attempted to negotiate the structure, designs, and formats offered by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Participants' views on the importance of debates for voter learning, reactions to past debates and their formats, the impact of debates on voter intent, the desirability of mandatory debates, and preferred formats and questions for the 1992 debates were reported. The authors corroborated the results of previous studies suggesting that debates primarily serve a reinforcement function, are helpful to undecided voters, and provide insights into a candidate's character.


This chapter looked at formats, comparing the four used in 1992. Further, it examined debate formats used prior to 1992 in both primary and general elections and assessed their strengths and limitations. Researchers reported that the multiple panelist format was the least preferred. Questions reflecting voter interest and concerns (as represented in the Richmond debate), as well as follow-up questions (such as those used in the first half of the East Lansing debate), were seen as enhancing the single moderator approach. Focus group participants urged a strong single moderator role to avoid what they perceived as a "free-for-all" in the vice presidential debate.

Let the People Speak:


This chapter was devoted to the innovative town hall meeting - implemented for the first time in the Richmond debate - where undecided voters asked the questions. The authors explored trends leading to the development of this format and the emergence of greater public participation in debates.

"Children in a Sandbox"


This section offered further argument for public ownership of the debates due to focus group assertions that the vice presidential debates were of little value to voter education. Participant criticisms centered on the candidates' demeanor and attention to issues that were viewed as inconsistent with the public's. They also felt there was a lack of clear procedures for the moderator to enforce. The debate's shortcomings are viewed as compounding the difficulty in understanding the function of a vice presidential debate.

Flirting with Perot:


The authors here focused on the first three-way match-up in a general election presidential debate. Participant reaction to Ross Perot and James Stockdale's presence in the debates suggested that the dynamics, content, and tone of the exchange during the debates were distinctly affected by their presence. Focus groups found this element impacted their attitudes about independent candidates.


Chapter nine argued that the primary reason for holding debates is voter education. Voter learning about the issues and candidates' personal characteristics were examined with the majority of participants indicating that little new information was revealed to those who considered themselves well informed. However, most said some first-time information could be identified in each debate. Candidate preference surveys examined the impact of the debates on voter intent.


This chapter provided insight into process and procedures surrounding the actual discussions within the focus groups. Because each focus group contained people with differing opinions of the candidates, disagreements were inevitable. Conveners monitored the manner in which strangers pursued conflict resolution.

Debates Versus Other Communication Sources:


Chapter eleven presented the results of a control group experiment which consolidated data from the national sample of focus groups with that collected in the final phase of an ongoing panel study of potential voters in South Dakota. The conclusions drawn from both studies regarding the debates' impact on learning, in comparison to other news sources, were similar. Focus group discussions were used to amplify survey findings that debates played a primary role in the last month of the campaign in influencing perceptions of the candidates, particularly their competence and persona.

The Gender Gap?


This chapter analyzed the differences and similarities between the way male and female focus group members perceived the debates and discussed them. The research design included all-female and all-male groups in four cities. Transcripts from those cities were examined against fourteen transcripts from mixed gender groups. Researchers isolated specific language patterns:

  • the nature and frequency of dominance of time; and
  • interruptions of discussion by male members in mixed gender focus groups.

Findings suggested that men and women were concerned about similar issues but talked about them differently.


Since younger voters, especially students, showed increased interest and participation in the 1992 election, student-only groups were held at the University of Kansas to determine the debates' impact on predominantly first-time voters. Since student voters were more likely to be undecided and had followed the campaign less closely than many other focus group members, their expectations and desired outcomes demonstrated some stark differences from those of other age groups.


Chapter fourteen concluded the study and summarized the findings by presenting recommendations for future presidential debates. Many of the recommendations were applicable to political debates in general. This section reviewed participant feedback on format, questions, and voter education projects.


Post-1988 Symposium: Assessment of the 1988 Debates

Symposium held on Wednesday, May 9, 1990
Decatur Carriage House
Washington, DC


Debate Format: A Look at the Options

Diana Prentice Carlin, Department of Communication Studies, University of Kansas

The Role of Journalists in Debates

Moderator: Sander Vanocur, ABC News

Ken Bode, Center For Contemporary Media, DePauw University, CNN

David Broder, The Washington Post

John Mashek, The Boston Globe

Margaret Warner, Newsweek

The Candidates' Perspectives

Moderator: Jules Witcover, Baltimore Evening Sun

Charles R. Black, Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly

Thomas E. Donilon, O'Melveny & Myers