Battles for branding : political marketing and U.S. Senate debates
Televised political debates, as two-sided information flows, are dynamic political communication events that inform, persuade, and entertain voters. Political debates provide candidates the opportunity to brand themselves to voters, and political marketing provides a framework with which to analyze communication effects and how voters process and retain information in memory. Through an analysis of survey responses from participants who viewed a 2018 U.S. Senate debate, the current study incorporates a political marketing perspective to analyze how televised political debates influence voters' brand associations toward candidates. My results led me to develop the concept of Debate Branding, where participating in a debate is more likely to generate positive brand associations with supporters than it is to generate negative brand associations with detractors. Each of the debating candidates in this study saw more positive in-group associations than negative out-group associations, highlighting the power of debates as branding opportunities. Moreover, brand favorability, i.e., how many positive or negative thoughts individuals had toward candidates, was a significant predictor of candidate evaluations. Additionally, respondents offered far more brand associations about the candidates as people than they did about the policy positions or party affiliation of the candidates. This finding contributes to the literature on candidate image and issues in political communication. Debates, as persuasive events, can produce cognitive involvement in voters. Through an experimental design, my study explored how involvement influenced the brand associations of viewers. I found that personal relevance remains a core path to involvement, while also finding tentative, yet intriguing support for a new path to involvement in political messages: nationalized partisan involvement. Cognitive involvement, in the form of brand associations, was highest when a debate was both personally relevant and nationalized. This has implications for the modern political media and electoral environment.Televised political debates are largely studied at the presidential level and there is a corresponding paucity of literature on the effects of viewing Senate debates. I found that viewing a televised U.S. Senate debate promoted information acquisition, had substantive influences on attitudes such as political information efficacy, candidate evaluations, intention to vote for a candidate, and intention to vote in the midterm elections, and had marginal influences on political cynicism and interest. These findings have implications for educators, television programmers, political campaigns, and civic groups across the country. Presidential debates are not the only debates that have positive democratic outcomes.
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