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Brief 37: Voter and Candidate Response to Political Debates

In Sierra Leone, in 2012, candidates for Parliament representing 3 different political parties participated in debates in 14 competitive districts. A civil society group presented nearly 200 debate screenings in randomly selected polling locations, and they reached an estimated 19,000 people. Overall, the debates led to increased voter knowledge and increased alignment based on policy preferences, which in turn increased campaign expenditure and accountability from Members of Parliament.

Category: Elections

Tags: Elections, voting, debates, alignment, sierra leone, expenditure, campaigns, politicians, behavior

Date of Publication: Friday, January 22, 2016

EGAP Researcher: Katherine Casey

Other Authors: Kelly Bidwell, Rachel Glennerster

Geographical Region: Africa

Research Question: What impact do political debates have on voter, candidate, and politician behavior?

Preparer: Seth Ariel Green



Sierra Leone is a West African country of 6 million people. It is a poor country with a median life expectancy of 57.8 years. The country endured a violent civil war from 1991-2002 that left 50,000 dead. Ethnicity is salient in politics: the Temne ethnic group and other Northern ethnicities are typically associated with the All People's Congress (APC), and groups in the South—especially the Mende—are associated with the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP).

Sierra Leone is divided into 112 single-seat Parliamentary constituencies. In the 2007 election, the APC, the SLPP, and an SLPP splinter party called the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) won 53, 38, and 8 percent of 112 available seats. They were the only parties to win seats. Ethnic ties to these parties are strong, with 89% of citizens in the control group reporting votes for candidates from the party associated with their ethnic group.

Research Design:
Before the 2012 parliamentary elections, the research team identified 28 constituencies with relatively competitive elections (based on previous vote results, ethnic-partisan bias, and the whether the seat had recently changed parties). From these 28, 14 were randomly selected, and a civil society group called Search for Common Ground (SFCG) invited candidates from the three major parties to participate in debates. First, candidates answered some getting-to-know-you questions. Then, they answered questions on a variety of national policy issues. Lastly, candidates were asked about local issues.

The researchers then identified 224 polling stations in rural areas and randomly selected 112 to screen the debates as part of a “road show.” SFCG projected debates in convenient and public spaces, such as the sides of polling stations. This was the primary treatment. In addition, a different group of voters were exposed to just the candidates' “getting-to-know-you” responses, and others listened to journalistic summaries of the candidates' responses.


The treatment had multiple effects on multiple groups in society:

  • Exposure to debates increased voter knowledge substantially for policy questions, candidate recognition, and candidates' positions.
  • Treated voters were more likely to share the policy preferences of the candidate they voted for.
  • Treated voters were more likely to vote for candidates who performed well in the debates, as measured by both audience reaction and an expert panel.
  • Exposure to debates enhanced voter openness to other parties.
  • Candidates featured in debates were more likely to spend campaign money in places that saw debates.
  • Compared to watching get-to-know-you questions only, watching debates had larger effects on voter knowledge. Debates outperformed both get-to-know you questions and radio summaries in changing policy views and vote choices
  • MPs who participated in the debates made more community visits after being elected.
  • MPs who participated in the debates spent more development money on development projects.
Policy Implications:

This research suggests that political debates can have strong positive effects on multiple parts of the political process. The experiment also suggests that civil society groups can perform an important role in transmitting political information to citizens; one of the key roles SFCG played was broadcasting the debates in remote local areas.

Overall, the experiment indicates that debates can be powerful tools for increasing citizen knowledge and political accountability.