Political Behavior

, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 67-89

First online:

Political Learning from Presidential Debates

  • Thomas M. HolbrookAffiliated withDepartment of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

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This paper focuses on an important aspect of presidential debates: the degree to which voters are able to glean candidate information from them. Using an open-ended measure of candidate information, the analysis tests hypotheses concerning the impact of debates on information acquisition among the mass public for all debates from 1976 to 1996. The findings indicate that people do learn from debates and that learning is affected by the context in which the information is encountered. Specifically, early debates generate more learning than do subsequent debates, and the public tends to learn more about candidates with whom they are relatively unfamiliar than about better-known candidates.