Most of us within the research community are approaching next week’s first Presidential Debate with excitement and fascination. But for Dr. Charlton McIlwain, whose research focus is on the intersection of race and media within the context of social and political arena, next week’s Debate must seem like the Super Bowl of Super Bowls. As associate professor of media, culture and communications at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, Dr. McIlwain has been researching and reporting on the impact of race-based messaging in political communications for more than a decade. As announced this week, he will be teaming with Dr. Philip Dalton from Hofstra University to conduct a live, Perception Analyzer dial testing focus group to investigate the role race plays in influencing viewers’, and in particular Millennial viewers’, reactions to the debate.
With this momentous and highly anticipated political event as a backdrop, we were fortunate enough to get a few minutes of Dr. McIlwain’s time to get discuss his thoughts in the lead up to the Debate and his forthcoming study.
Q: A ton of buzz and hype surrounding this first presidential debate. From a researcher’s perspective, what excites you most about this first debate?
CM: Debates are generally predictable. The extreme difference between the candidates in this campaign makes this debate anything but.
Q: What are you hoping this study will tell you?
CM: We think we know generally how people will react to the candidates, based on what party they belong to. I’m hoping this study will tell us about the magnitude of affect – whether positive or negative – the candidates’ communication will evoke among potential voters.
Q: What key question(s) are you hoping to answer in regards to race-based messages in the debate?
CM: Do Black and White potential voters respond differently to the candidates’ responses to debate questions? How differently do they respond to the candidates’ statements about race, particularly when it comes to issues such as immigration, racial discrimination and police violence, voting rights and similar issues? Can the magnitude of emotional response to the candidates’ messages tell us something about what might motivate them to show up to the polls on Election Day?
Q: What key question(s) are you hoping to answer in regards to how millennials react to the debate?
CM: Same questions, but with added significance on the third given that voter turnout amongst young people is unpredictable. Experts have wondered whether Clinton or Trump have the kind of appeal that Obama had to get young people to show up to the polls. If this is a close election, the magnitude of turnout by both millennials, non-whites, and the intersection of the two, could make a critical difference in the outcome.
Q: Why have you chosen to use dial testing?
CM: Dial testing provides much more of an unfiltered response to messages. That is, it measures much more of individuals’ actual feelings about what is being communicated than say asking people on a survey about what they thought about the debate or the candidates. It also enables us to pinpoint what specific messages, what particular moments individuals react to, rather than just a general impression of the entire debate event. Knowing more precisely what evokes a reaction allows us to better predict what the impact of such messages might be over time up through Election Day.
[Dial testing] measures much more of individuals’ actual feelings about what is being communicated than say asking people on a survey about what they thought about the debate or the candidates. It also enables us to pinpoint what specific messages, what particular moments individuals react to, rather than just a general impression of the entire debate event.
Q: Why is getting in-the-moment (visceral) reactions important to your research?
CM: It’s unfiltered. We know from years of scientific data that asking people questions about what we think or how we feel isn’t always a reliable measure of how we actually think, feel or may likely behave as a result. Having visceral reactions to specific stimuli help us to gain a better understanding of what’s actually going on.
Q: How does this study fit into the broader research you’re doing?
CM: This study will give me the first opportunity to understand people’s reactions to race-related communications by political candidates in the field, as opposed to understanding these reactions through a controlled experiment. So this adds to our ability to understand how individuals respond to messages about race and public policy initiatives that have implications for social policy.
And here’s a previous interview we did with Dr. McIlwain, where he discusses the studies he’s conducted, which focused on race-based messaging in political advertisements.
Image courtesy of NYU’s The Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.