The Veep Debate, and What Commentators Don’t Understand about Who Watched It

All throughout last night’s debate, I read a zillion tweets wondering how the exchange between Biden and Ryan, deemed “aggressive quarreling” on the front page of my New York Times this morning, would “play” with undecided voters or “Middle America” or whatever.  One notion was that ordinary voters would get turned off by the combat and go watch baseball.

Here’s some breaking news: the kind of people who choose to watch a vice-presidential debate instead of baseball or football or a cooking show are not sensitive souls who curl up into a ball at the first sign of disagreement between politicians.  People who choose to watch political conflict can deal with it.  Those who can’t—or just aren’t interested in the first place—are watching something else.  Research by political scientists Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson shows this.

I also found it a bit rich that media commentators wondered how the debate would “play” with voters.  The answer to that question, of course, is how it “played” with the news media.  The media supplies the interpretation of events like debates, and that helps shape how voters understand them too.  As Justin Wolfers put it:

Columnists writing about what columnists will write about the debate, and it’s turtles all the way down.

And if you don’t believe that, Mark Halperin is happy to illustrate:


Ultimately, the voters most likely to react to the “aggressive quarreling” will do so because the media told them to react to it.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.