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Presidential Debates in the Age of Partisan Media: A Field Experiment

Sat, May 27, 11:00 to 12:15, Hilton San Diego Bayfront, Floor: 2, Indigo 206


To investigate media effects in political campaigns, we administered a field experiment around the
first general election presidential debate of 2016. In this three-wave study, subjects were randomly
incentivized to watch the debate and post-debate television coverage on Fox News or MSNBC. We
find that post-debate coverage has strong effects on performance evaluations, with subjects’ perceptions
moving in the direction of the partisan slant of the channel they were assigned to watch on.
Though these effects evolve over time, with subjects coming to express beliefs in line with the media
consensus, they do not disappear altogether. Moderate partisans were still affected by the postdebate
coverage a week later. However, the effects we observe are limited to debate evaluations; at
no point do we observe partisan media affecting vote choice. Our results offer powerful evidence of
media effects that persists over time, but that are confined to debate performance evaluations.