New Paltz Professor is Focused on First Presidential Debate

NEW PALTZ — The end of the first U.S. presidential debate between Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush will be the beginning of an influential project for SUNY New Paltz associate professor Mary L. Kahl.

The faculty member of the New Paltz Communication & Media Department will conduct a focus group following the October 3 debate at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her group will speak with members of the immediate audience about their impressions of the two candidates and their performance.

Although the project involves hundreds of post-debate focus groups held across the nation, Kahl is one of only three scholars who will have access to audience members who witnessed the debate live. The group’s feedback will be used to assess whether the debates are providing useful information about issues of concern to the American public.

“Only the Superbowl rivals a presidential debate in terms of audience size, and it’s such a tight race between Gore and Bush,” Kahl said. “There is much more at stake than the casual viewer might realize. The candidates use this occasion to stress major campaign issues, to reach new and potentially sympathetic groups of voters, and to highlight their strengths in contrast to their opponent’s weaknesses.”

She added, “The candidates are concerned about issues as well as image in these contests and the tension created by the debate is palpable.”

Immediately following the debate, “The pressure is still on,” according to Kahl. “Surrogates, campaign staffers, and consultants rush to speak with the hundreds of media representatives who are present, each side trying to spin the debate to their candidate’s advantage and declare their man the victor.”

Kahl speaks with experience about the presidential debate process because at the presidential debate held in Hartford, Conn., in 1996, she conducted a similar focus group for the Commission on Presidential Debates — the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that has sponsored the debates since 1988.

Kahl’s current focus group is being sponsored by DebateWatch 2000, a research project affiliated with the Commission on Presidential Debates. The feedback offered by these groups will be tabulated at DebateWatch 2000 headquarters, at the University of Kansas, and will be used by the Commission, the candidates, and communication scholars.

“Attending the debates in person and working with members of the immediate audience has given me an entirely new appreciation of what these events mean — to the candidates, to their campaigns, to the public and to the press,” Kahl concluded.

This is Kahl’s 11th year on the faculty at New Paltz. She taught previously at the University of California, Stonehill College, and Boston College.Note to editors: A photograph of Mary L. Kahl can be downloaded from the SUNY New Paltz web site at Photo by Nancy Pizio, Public Affairs Office.