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Contact: Diana Carlin, Graduate School, (785) 864-6161

DebateWatch shows the importance of presidential forums to voter education

LAWRENCE -- The presidential debates can be an important factor in determining for whom Americans vote.

That is one of the key conclusions that Diana Carlin, dean of the Graduate School and International Programs and a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, says can be drawn from DebateWatch, an education program she created in 1996 to study voter reactions to presidential debates.

"For people who are undecided, the debates have an impact on their decision- making," Carlin said. "The debates help clarify the candidates' positions."

The third installment of DebateWatch will begin when President George W. Bush and Democratic Party candidate Sen. John Kerry meet on Thursday, Sept. 30, at the University of Miami in Florida and twice more in the following three weeks.

KU will host several DebateWatch groups at the Kansas Union on Sept. 30. The Dole Institute of Politics will host sessions for the remaining debates. Other DebateWatch groups will gather in Lawrence and the Kansas City metro area. Hundreds of groups will meet nationally at universities, in community centers or media studios or in private homes.

DebateWatch was created from research Carlin started during the 1992 presidential election. Her national study involved 600 people in 18 cities in 15 states. They were asked to watch the debates and then explain in discussion groups what they learned from the debates, which formats they liked and how the debates could be improved.

"People were very positive about debates," Carlin said. "Seeing the candidates side by side over an extended period of time was better than any other format, including conventions and watching political ads."

Carlin also found that participants preferred the "town hall" format, in which citizens engaged the candidates directly by asking questions, over the traditional format of candidates speaking behind podiums and a moderator asking questions.

From that 1992 study, DebateWatch evolved into a program sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates that invites anyone to host a gathering and exercise the option to complete a survey online.

Carlin, her graduate students and other members of the National Communication Association also develop groups specifically for research purposes. These groups complete more detailed surveys and tape discussions for analysis to determine the importance of debates in decision-making and what was learned from the debates.

The Kansas Campus Compact, an organization to get college students more involved in civic activities, and the National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement, sponsored by the Harvard Institute of Politics, also will conduct research on the impact DebateWatch discussions on getting 18- to 24-year-old voters to the polls. KU is a participant in both projects.

Discussion groups can have eight to 12 people who pick a leader or "facilitator." Each group watches the debate, then turns off the television to start the discussion. The facilitator can use a list of suggested questions to begin the dialogue or simply start asking questions. The beauty of the project, Carlin says, is that it is so simple that anyone can do it with friends, family, or neighbors.

The only question participants are not allowed to ask is, "Who won?"

"How do you determine in a debate who won?" Carlin said. "There are no points given, no score sheet. Research has told us that you think the candidate you support won. The debates are for voter education, and the more interesting question is whether or not anyone learned anything new or if people who were undecided or not firmly committed to a candidate were helped by the debates in making a choice."

In the 2004 debates, Carlin will be gauging reactions to international issues and how those compare to the 1996 and 2000 debates. She also will be looking at how participants react to incumbents versus challengers and how participants react to Bush in 2004 versus 2000. Those details will be reported in a book scheduled for publication in late 2005.

As in previous presidential election cycles, DebateWatch will ask facilitators to turn in surveys on where their sessions were held, how many people were in their groups and their ages and political affiliations. Carlin also wants to know what issues were discussed and which were helpful to participants.

Anyone interested in participating or leading a DebateWatch discussion group who cannot attend the events on campus can create a group by following the directions on the commission's Web site, http://www.debates.org. The site also has the dates and locations of the debates of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates.


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