Closing the Knowledge Gap: How Issue Priming Before Presidential Debate Viewing Encourages Learning and Opinion Articulation

Freddie J. Jennings, Robert H. Wicks, Mitchell S. McKinney, Kate Kenski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


One mechanism by which citizens learn about candidates and issues is through watching presidential debates. Some scholars have raised concerns that these events, however, disproportionately benefit those already high in political knowledge more so than others with lesser knowledge levels. We hypothesize that knowledge begets knowledge because it prompts a constructive cognitive process that results from elaboration and reflection. We test this hypothesis in an experiment that also considers whether issue priming could help mitigate the deficit that those lower in political sophistication have when viewing campaign events. Participants (N = 543) watched a 9-minute segment focusing on economic issues drawn from the first 2020 presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joseph Biden. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to an issue priming condition and viewed the debate segment after reading a narrative text on economic policy, and the other half read an unrelated text. The study presents a model that reveals the following: (a) cognitive elaboration mediates the relationship between prior political knowledge and learning from a campaign event, (b) providing citizens with background issue–related knowledge produces a similar elaborative effect as did preexisting political knowledge, and (c) participants demonstrate greater political opinion articulation following this enhanced elaboration leading to more learning. The implications for cultivating a knowledgeable democratic electorate are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)292-306
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican Behavioral Scientist
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • Donald Trump
  • Joseph Biden
  • presidential debate

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Cultural Studies
  • Education
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences(all)


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