Fifty Cameron University students participated in a presidential debate study conducted by the University of Missouri, joining other college students from locations throughout the country. Nearly 400 college students viewed the debate and completed questionnaires before and after the debate.
CU’s Dr. Justin Walton, Professor of Communication Studies, hosted the Cameron students at the invitation of Dr. Mitchell McKinney, Professor of Communication and Director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri.
Among participants in the multi-campus study, Hillary Clinton’s performance in the first debate increased students’ likelihood of voting for her from 43 percent before the debate to 54 percent after the debate. For Donald Trump, the likelihood to vote decreased from 28 percent before to 27 percent after the debate. The number of undecided voters shifted from 29 percent before the debate to 19 percent afterward. Among participants in this study, 46 percent self-identified as Democrat, 38 percent as Republican, and 16 percent as Independent. Sixty-two percent were female and 38 percent were male.
According to McKinney, these results indicate that Trump was unable to use the first debate to convince undecided young voters to vote for him while Clinton did improve her overall support.
“It’s clear from this sample of college students that the undecided voters moved toward Clinton after the debate while Trump was unable to attract any additional support,” he says.
Debate viewers’ overall evaluations of Clinton also rose, while evaluations of Trump decreased slightly following the debate. Using a “feeling thermometer” scale from 0-100, evaluations of Clinton rose from 38 before the debate to 48 afterward, while evaluations of Trump declined from 28 before the debate to 27 afterward.
“It’s striking how low evaluations were for both candidates going into the debate,” says Dr. Benjamin Warner, Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Missouri.
The changes in candidate evaluations drew a contrast to previous debate viewing studies the researchers have conducted.
“In the four previous cycles from 2000 to 2012, the average candidate increase during the first debate was only one point,” Warner reports. “Clinton’s 10-point swing is the biggest increase of any candidate we’ve seen in our presidential debate research.”
In previous cycles, changes in candidate evaluations after the first debate ranged from zero to five points, with the highest changes being a five-point increase for John Kerry in 2004 and a five-and-a-half point increase for Mitt Romney in 2012.
The Cameron students participated in the study along with students from Indiana University, Emerson College in Boston, Marquette University, Missouri State University, Rhodes College in Tennessee and the University of Wyoming.
“Our research of college students’ reactions to the debates could not be conducted without the cooperation of our colleagues across the country,” McKinney says. “The research consortium plans to conduct similar debate viewing studies of college students for the two remaining presidential debates and the vice presidential debate.”
“The Cameron students were very enthusiastic about participating in this election project,” Walton says. “For many, this was the first time they had ever watched a political debate. Many of them took notes or posted perceptions of the debate on social media. Several commented that they planned on watching the rest of the debates in October. I was thrilled to see so many of our students interested and engaged in this political event. “
September 27, 2016