Campus & Community

Presidential Debates Get Attention, Not Enthusiasm

4 min read

The recent rash of presidential primary debates has spawned news coverage that has caught the public’s attention, but the debates have failed to generate deep voter interest or excitement, according to recent polls by the Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

After a rapid increase in the number of voters who reported having seen, read, or heard a campaign news story in early January, poll results from last week indicate their exposure to and interest in the campaign has leveled off.

Perhaps the most telling statistic is the Center’s “Involvement Index” – an average of responses to four key questions – that indicates only one-quarter of Americans are tuned in to the campaign.

“We think that’s pretty low,” said Shorenstein Center Research Coordinator Tami Buhr. “Three-quarters are just tuning this out completely. Little seems to inspire them. That indicates there’s something about this campaign that doesn’t grab people.”

The polls were conducted by the Shorenstein Center’s Vanishing Voter Project, which is working to revive Americans’ flagging interest in presidential politics. The Project will monitor news coverage and survey the electorate every week for the coming year to determine when and why citizens follow or ignore the campaign. The Vanishing Voter Project is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The most recent poll, conducted Jan. 12 to 16, surveyed about 1,000 adults nationwide and has a margin of error that varies from plus or minus 3 percent to plus or minus 6 percent.

In that poll, the proportion of people who said they had thought about the campaign sometime “during the past day” rose slightly, to 35 percent from 34 percent. Those who said they’d talked about the campaign also rose 1 percent, to 16 percent.

There was a larger increase in those who said they are now paying “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of attention the campaign, to 16 percent from 11 percent. Those who recalled a campaign news story within the past day fell six points, to 33 percent.

Underlying responses to the poll was a perception that the debates and subsequent campaigning had produced little that was new or startling. More than half of those polled in the last two weeks said that the campaign had been “boring.” Only 12 percent felt last week was an “exciting” week in the campaign. Further, a large number thought the week had been “uninformative,” 41 percent, versus the 29 percent who found it “informative.”

“These numbers reflect the ability of the media to get the voters’ attention,” says Thomas Patterson, coordinator of the Shorenstein Center poll and Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Kennedy School. “When the campaign is on the front pages and at the top of the newscasts, people will notice it. But they won’t necessarily embrace it. To get that response, something big needs to happen. Nothing in these debates fits that description. That’s why Americans say it’s been a boring and uninformative stretch of the campaign, despite the debates.”

The Jan. 5 through Jan. 9 poll also indicated that the viewing audiences for the recent debates were generally somewhat larger than for earlier ones. Nevertheless, most viewers watched only a small portion of a debate before tuning to other programming. Those who stayed tuned were mainly committed partisans, particularly those from the candidates’ own party. Of the major demographic groups, young adults were the least likely to have watched the debates.

“The debates are helpful and important, and they do attract some attention,” says Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project and the executive director of the Shorenstein Center’s Washington office. “But so far anyway there is no evidence of public interest or excitement about the 2000 campaign, especially among young Americans. ‘Boring’ and ‘uninformative’ are still the adjectives of choice.”

More results are available on the project’s web site at