Questioning the Questions: The Fox News Republican Primary Debate

How Did Fox’s 2012 GOP Debate on Thursday Differ From Past Presidential Debates?

The question regarding questions always surrounds political debates. Compare coverage of a 2007 Republican presidential primary debate on CNN and Thursday’s Republican presidential primary debate on Fox News. In 2007, the questions to the Republican candidates were posed from YouTube videos – one of the first official new media debates – and focused on a range of hot button issues including abortion, gays in the military, and the Bible. The San Francisco Chronicle quoted Peter Leyden of the New Politics Institute who remarked: “It seemed more like CNN was picking and choosing the questions for their dramatic effect. They wanted fireworks, and they got them.”

Flash forward four years to the 2012 Fox News Republican presidential primary debate. Politico noted the surprisingly heated nature of the questions that came from the panel. “Fox News’s role in the Republican 2012 presidential primary shifted during last night’s debate, as questioners served up a barrage of tough questions that left a fair amount of blood on the floor.” Questions were specifically directed at the two Minnesotans in the race – former Governor Tim Pawlenty and Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann – on the lack of civility between the two, characteristic of the northern state. The panel asked former Speaker Newt Gingrich about his haphazard campaign organization which drew a rebuke from Gingrich, and then proceeded to pick apart frontrunner Mitt Romney’s background at Bain Capital.

There are several takeaways from the Republican primary debate that supposedly left “a fair amount of blood on the floor.” (1) Fox News could be pursuing two different strategies. Combating its image as ideologically sympathetic to the Republican Party, the panel could have purposely posed tough questions to compensate for this. The other potential strategy is to publicize early the weaknesses of a Republican field viewed as weak and uninspiring. This could inoculate candidates from future attacks and/or allow voters enough time to accept the warts associated with each candidate. (2) Both news media personnel and political communication scholars often bemoan the lack of substance in political debates. In fact, many scholars offer substantive solutions to fixing the problem of debates. Kathleen Hall Jamieson and David Birdsell’s book Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate suggests a number of potential solutions. (3) It is often the case that debates do very little to change opinions. Debate viewers engage in a form of selective exposure by attending to their chosen candidate’s messages. In a primary where few voters have begun to pay close attention, this may not be the case. However, even weak preferences for a particular candidate may increase the salience of certain candidate characteristics and messages over others. Dietram Scheufele, Eunkyung Kim, and Dominique Brossard offer compelling thoughts on this in “My Friend’s Enemy: How Split-Screen Debate Coverage Influences Evaluations of Presidential Debates.” (4) As in any case, the medium matters. Whether one heard the debate, saw it, read about it, or was not exposed to it at all could affect how each and every candidate was perceived. An interesting historical example of this is found in the 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. In this case, those that watched the debate on TV labeled Kennedy the winner while many who listened on the radio thought Nixon came out on top.