A Motivated Audience: An Analysis of Motivated Reasoning and Presidential Campaign Debates
Mullinix, Kevin John
University of Kansas
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Recent innovations in psychology bolster an information processing theory of motivated reasoning. However, there are few attempts to apply the theory outside of a laboratory setting, and it is limited in its application to only a few political phenomena. I argue that presidential campaign debates present unique case studies to test the theory. There is a wealth of scholarly literature that examines presidential debates. Much of this research examines the effects of debates on learning political information, candidate evaluation, and vote choice. Only a few of these studies are buttressed with a psychological model of how individuals process information. In this study I apply motivated reasoning to disentangle the mechanisms through which individuals process debate information. Using national panel data sets, I analyze pre and post responses to presidential debates in both 1996 and 2008. I find strong support for a prior attitude effect and polarization. More interestingly and consistent with theory, the effects are conditioned by levels of interest. The effects of campaign debates are strongest for motivated individuals with high levels of interest. This study presents a propitious opportunity to fill gaps in existing literature and provide a fruitful test and extension of an emerging theory.