What determines who qualifies? : A quantitative study on the presence of first- and second-level agenda setting and issue ownership in the 2020 Democratic primary debates.
Abstract: The purpose of this study is to investigate the presence of first- and second-level agenda setting as well as issue ownership in the 2020 Democratic primary debates and whether there is a relationship between using strategies based on these theories and qualifying for future debates. The study seeks to answer three research questions: What is the relationship, if any, between a candidate whose statements focused primarily on the three issues considered most important by the public according to opinion polls and whether this candidate qualified for future debates? How did candidates use frames to redraw the attention of issues? What is the relationship, if any, between the extent to which a candidate’s statements discussed performance issues more than Republican-owned or Democratic-owned issues and whether this candidate qualified for future debates? The study draws mainly on the first and second level of the agenda setting theory, as well as the theory of issue ownership, and analyzes what issues candidates focus on, what attributes of these issues they emphasize, and whether they discuss performance issues like the economy or foreign policy more than issues owned by either the Republican or the Democratic Party. Through a quantitative content analysis of four candidates’ (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, & Andrew Yang) statements from three of the eleven primary debates held in the 2020 primary process, the study found no direct relationship between focusing on the public’s three most important issues and qualifying for future debates. Similarly, no such relationship was found between emphasizing certain attributes and qualifying for future debates, although the results suggest that candidates may have benefited from avoiding framing issues economically, which concurs with previous findings (Boydstun, Glazier, & Pietryka, 2013a; Boydstun, Glazier, & Phillips, 2013) and supports Vavreck’s (2009) theory that insurgent candidates should not emphasize the economy. Findings also demonstrated the contrasting ways three of the candidates framed the same issues, where Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar tended to emphasize economic frames when discussing Medicare while Bernie Sanders emphasized effectiveness. Lastly, the findings support previous research on issue ownership since findings showed that most candidates discussed Democratic-owned issues more than other issues, while the eventual presidential nominee, Joe Biden, overall discussed performance issues more than issues owned by either party. This suggests that focusing on such issues may be beneficial for challenging candidates during an election cycle where the sitting president has been criticized for not being able to handle the job. Thus, no direct relationship could be found in the case of RQ1 or RQ2 but discussing performance issues the most overall may have benefited one candidate, suggesting there is a relationship in the case of RQ3.
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