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Brief 64: The Moderating Effect of Debates in Ghana

This study examines whether and why debates providing information about candidate quality and policy positions affect voters’ attitudes in new democracies. During Ghana’s 2016 parliamentary elections, the authors showed voters from three constituencies debate videos, randomizing the segments of the debate seen across respondents. They find that the debates had the strongest effect on partisan voters, making them more likely to vote for opponent-party candidates. Data capturing respondents’ second-by-second reactions to the videos suggests that these effects are driven by policy position information provided in the debates. Two days after the intervention, effects persist in electorally competitive communities, but dissipate in party strongholds.

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Category: Elections

Tags: voting, debates, election, Ghana

Date of Publication: Tuesday, August 27, 2019

EGAP Researcher: Eric Kramon

Other Authors: Sarah Brierley, George Kwaku Ofosu

Research Question:

Do candidate debates influence voters in new democracies?

Preparer: Tanu Kumar



This study was conducted around Ghana’s parliamentary elections held in December 2016, the seventh since democratic rule was reinstalled in 1992. Each of the country’s 275 parliamentary constituencies elected one member of parliament (MP) for a four-year term. Most constituencies were represented MPs affiliated with the country’s two major political parties: National Democratic Congress and New Patriotic Party. As part of an effort to promote policy-based campaigning and information provision to voters, a civil society organization called the Center for Democratic Development (CDD) began holding MP candidate debates at the constituency-level in 2012. With Ghana’s National Commission for Civic Education, the CDD organized parliamentary debates in 50 constituencies across Ghana’s 10 regions during the 2016 elections. The debates were held in public locations and had three main segments: candidates described their personal background, qualifications, and values (personal background segment), discussed their policy plans for education and unemployment (policy segment), and fielded questions from the audience.

Research Design:

The authors conducted their study in three constituencies selected to include communities that were electorally competitive or strongholds for either of the major parties. They videotaped and edited the debates to show 1,991 respondents different portions of the debates on smartphones. The treatment entailed showing respondents different combinations of segments. In one treatment condition (N=391), participants watched only the personal background segment. In another treatment condition (N=409), participants only viewed the policy segment. In another condition (N=402), participants watched both segments. In the final condition (N=391), participants listen to audio recordings only of both segments. Participants in the control group watched a non-political, placebo video that was roughly equal in length to the debate (N=398).

All participants’ partisanship was measured using a pre-treatment survey. The main outcomes, namely participants’ overall evaluation of each candidate and vote choice, were measured through a follow-up survey immediately after viewing or listening to the debate. A random 10 percent of respondents were surveyed again 2 days after viewing the debates to see if effects persisted. A separate set of respondents (N=244) also watched both segments of the debate on a tablet that asked respondents to indicate whenever they approved or disapproved of what a candidate was saying to measure their reactions in real-time (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Real-time response platform


Respondents who viewed or listened to any combination of the debate segments were likely to have modestly higher evaluations of all candidates than those who received the control condition, especially candidates who were not from either of the two major parties. The treatment condition had no detectable effect on swing voters, even for debate winners, and effects appear to be driven mainly by partisan voters. This suggests that the debates moderated political attitudes, rather than enforcing already-held beliefs or helping the undecided make up their mind. Among partisan voters, the treatment conditions did not increase support for co-partisan candidates, but actually improved evaluations of opponent candidates. Moreover, debates made partisans 6 percentage points less likely to say they would vote for their party’s candidate and about 2 percentage points more likely to report an intention to vote for another party. Effects remain similar even among strong (versus moderate) partisans of both major parties. For the strongest partisans in the sample, the policy segment treatment had a larger effect on evaluations of candidates, and this same segment had a positive effect on the reported intention to vote for an opponent-party candidate while the personal background segment had no effect on this outcome. These effects among partisans can be thought of as moderating effects.

These moderating effects dissipated in the full sample after 2 days; importantly, however, this decay was not universal but rather confined to voters who lived in politically homogeneous communities. The moderation effect persisted for partisan voters living in electorally competitive electoral areas, while it was short-lived in party strongholds.

Results from the real-response time platform provide more evidence that the policy segment of the debate drove the moderating effects. In the personal background segment, partisans are very positive toward their co-partisan and very negative toward the opposing party candidate. In the policy segments, this partisan gap decreases (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Real-time evaluations of co-partisans and opponent candidates (partisans only)

Policy Implications:

The results of this study suggest that debates may help voters choose representatives on the basis of their policy positions rather than co-partisanship or co-ethnicity. For this reason, they may help increase the accountability of candidates and representatives to voters. Importantly, debates do not entrench the positions of partisan voters, but rather moderate them. Of additional interest is the finding that debates primarily affect partisan voters, and not the swing voters who have yet to make up their mind. Finally, listening to the debates had the same effect as watching them, which suggests that radio broadcasts of debates are an effective way to disseminate candidate messages. This is among the first studies to investigate the effects of debates on voter preferences in a new democracy.