POLITICS

Can The First Republican Primary Debate Change Voters' Minds?

It's early, but Thursday's debate might matter more than you think.

This Thursday's inaugural Republican primary debate has candidates in a frenzy. Due to the controversial use of poll rankings to determine which of the 17 GOP presidential hopefuls will occupy the 10 spots in the primetime debate, candidates seem to be doing whatever it takes to make the cut.

In addition to making early national ad buys, they've resorted to more creative attempts at capturing the media's and voters' attention -- like cooking bacon with machine guns and taking a chainsaw to the tax code.

Yet while it's sure to be entertaining, will the debate even matter?

Despite the mad dash to make the cut, all candidates will have an opportunity to be heard, whether in the earlier forum for second-tier candidates or during the primetime debate. With so many candidates sharing limited airtime, it's difficult to imagine any one candidate expressing his or her views in much detail. And, as some have pointed out, the election is still more than a year away. 

Although primary debates aren't as widely studied as presidential debates, existing research suggests that they might matter more than some pundits have been claiming. Here are some findings from a variety of researchers on the topic.

Character Matters, Especially Early On

Compared to general election debates, primary debates tend to focus less on policy positions and more on character, according to a study of the 2008 presidential primary debates by William Benoit, a professor at the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University. And character matters to voters.

In a recent CNN/ORC poll, nearly all respondents (97 percent) said it was important that the next president is "honest and trustworthy." Similarly, almost all respondents (94 percent) said that it was important that the candidate stands up for his or her beliefs in the face of criticism.

"As humans, we're not the rational actor in the sense that we'll go ahead and weigh the pluses and minuses," Patrick Stewart, an associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, told The Huffington Post. "Oftentimes, it's about what we feel about someone when we first meet them. It's the thin slices that matter a lot. And these debates provide us with thin slices for each of these candidates."

If You Want Attention, You Need To Already Have It

 In a paper published last month in the journal Presidential Studies Quarterly, Stewart analyzed six of the January 2012 Republican primary debates and found that candidates who get more media attention also tend to get more speaking time in the debates.

In the two New Hampshire primary debates, Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney received almost 30 percent of the speaking time available to the six participating candidates (Jon Huntsman Jr., Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum, in addition to Romney). He went on to win the New Hampshire primary by a double-digit margin.

This time, Stewart thinks that real estate mogul Donald Trump will get a disproportionate amount of speaking time. But he also believes Trump "is going to be the odd person there" as the only celebrity of the group.

"Donald Trump knows that building the brand is about getting attention, and getting an emotional response from people," Stewart said. "So whether people love him or hate him, I think he's just happy that people pay attention to him."

The Media And Social Networks Can Shape The Debate

"Primary debates are important not because they change huge numbers of minds, but because of the life they take on afterward, mostly in the way they influence reporters," author Paul Waldman wrote last month in an opinion piece for The Week.

He may be right. The primary debate might not matter as much as the resulting media coverage, which many political scientists say can indirectly influence public opinion.

"The mediating factor here is the media. How does the media cover it?" Stewart asked. "Is it something that's going to be blogged about? Is it going to be tweeted about?" 

Candidates seeking attention to boost their public favorability ratings will want to make sure it's the positive kind of attention. Gaffes can be costly, and media and social networks can be merciless.

Another study Benoit co-authored, analyzing the 2000 presidential primary debates, found that newspaper coverage of debates tended to contain a higher percentage of negative comments than the debates themselves. Examining newspaper articles published during the week of the New Hampshire debates, the authors coded different statements as attacks, acclaims (i.e. "self-praise"), or defenses. The study suggested that attacks are more interesting and more dramatic to cover, so newspapers tend to give more attention to them.

But a 2011 Pew Research Center study found that Twitter and blogs contained even more scathing content than mainstream news. With special computer software that uses an algorithm to code textual content, researchers analyzed more than 20 million tweets and found that "[w]hile they differ, Twitter and blogs both produced harsher narratives overall about the candidates than did news coverage."

Pew's researchers also found that in the 2012 campaign, negative tweets about six of the eight Republican candidates vastly outweighed positive tweets. 

Bad press can lead to negative public opinion, which can have big consequences -- especially at a time when candidates are still defining themselves. In the most recent The Economist/YouGov poll, more than 30 percent of respondents said that they didn't know how favorably they viewed eight of the Republican candidates. 

Research "indicates that primary debates are likely to have greater influence on viewers than general debates because voters have less information about the candidates at that point in the campaign," according to a 2003 study Benoit co-authored.

Still, it's important to keep these studies in perspective. Those who watch primary debates are a self-selected group and are likely to get information about the candidates from other sources as well.

The takeaway? While no research is definitive, there's evidence that Thursday's debate might have a larger impact on the elections than one might think. And candidates may have some reason to rely on theatrics if they want a shot at convincing voters they deserve the nomination.

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