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McDonald provides answers in book on presidential debates

October 17, 2008

Voters expect presidential candidates to engage in informative, civil debates in a variety of settings focused on relevant national issues.

Those are the findings of a 13-year study on U.S. presidential debates conducted by Kelly McDonald, an assistant communication professor in ASU’s School of Letters and Sciences. McDonald’s research on the subject has resulted in his first book, “The Third Agenda in U.S. Presidential Debates.”  Co-authored with Diana B. Carlin, professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, the book will be released this month by Praeger Publishers.

“Debates don’t tend to shift the electoral tide but voters do get information on issues and a barometer of their reaction to candidates from watching them,” McDonald said. “They tend not to make or break a candidate, but they can amplify attributes which voters may see positively or negatively.”

Drawing on scholarly research and media critiques, 304-page book examines debates from 1996, 2000 and 2004 from the perspective of television viewers who watched the encounters first hand. Through a national program – DebateWatch – tens of thousands of viewers had an opportunity to provide feedback to the debate sponsors, the campaigns and presidential candidates in the last three elections. As a result, thousands of groups met to discuss what they liked and didn’t like about a particular candidate, what they learned, and what they still needed to know about the issues presented before them.

This book breaks down the fundamental aspects that made DebateWatch such a powerful tool for citizens and maps out what the public looks for when watching a debate.

“Voters have also told us they expect the presidential candidates to debate and they want it to be civil, civic and engaging,” McDonald said.

Debates are a powerful lens because the searing lights of the exchange put a bright focus on both the positive and negative, which gets picked up in the news cycle said McDonald. He points to the emotional register of debates like other political events such as Howard Dean’s “I Have a Scream” speech after the 2004 Iowa caucuses; Al Gore’s excessive eye-rolling and sighing in the 2000 debates and Michael Dukakis’ reserved and stoic nature was interpreted by voters in 1988 as lack of passion.

McDonald said the Oct. 2 vice presidential debate between Senator Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin may prove to be the big story in the 2008 election.

“That debate was watched by more than 70 million people, which is an astonishing number for a vice presidential debate,” McDonald said. “It gave us a glimpse into their leadership styles, how they would govern and if they are qualified to serve in that position.”

Along with 14 analytical chapters, this work contains four detailed appendices, several tables and an index.

To purchase a copy of “The Third Agenda,” go to



Marshall Terrill

Information Specialist

Arizona State University

(602) 496-1005