Effort to Engage Voters via Political 'Tupperware Parties'

Bob Gunning perches on the edge of an armchair in his neighbor's family room, where he and a half-dozen friends and acquaintances have gathered to analyze the recent vice-presidential debate.

"So, [GOP nominee Jack] Kemp kept returning to the doubling of growth over the next 20 years as the panacea for everything," he starts. "But I have to ask: What about overgrowth? Fast growth is not necessarily good."

In the 90-minute discussion that followed the debate, Mr. Gunning's comment about the appropriate rate of economic growth prompted the most verbal give and take among this slice of middle-age, middle-income America. It was not, however, the hot topic among TV commentators who evaluated the debate after it ended.

That, say the creators of DebateWatch '96, is why it is so vital that Gunning and his neighbors get together: to make an important part of the presidential campaign relevant to them, not just the pundits. To that end, DebateWatch '96, a nationwide voter-education project, has facilitated thousands of Tupperware party-like scenes - such as the one here in Portsmouth, N.H. - and is organizing thousands more for tonight's second presidential debate.

"Those in DebateWatch groups are becoming active participants rather than passive viewers," says Diana Carlin, University of Kansas communications professor and head of the DebateWatch project. "This is creating a sort of civic discourse that I don't think takes place in this country."

The group is also keeping tabs on what participants think of the debates. For example, topping the list of important issues discussed during the first presidential face-off: education and tax reform. Debate watchers also classified discussion of "character" as least helpful, unimportant, or irrelevant.

The DebateWatch effort is reminiscent of an age when small-town residents met on the village green to discuss local and national politics. It has enlisted thousands of corporate executives and college students, helping them learn how to watch debates and evaluate the debaters' messages. Organizers say turnout tonight is likely to be the highest of all because of its town-meeting format.

But many who study the American electorate say DebateWatch's efforts are misplaced. Encouraging Americans to watch three or four high-profile debates won't fix a political system that is deeply flawed, they say. Indeed, 40 percent fewer viewers watched the first two debates than in 1992 - despite efforts by DebateWatch and others to get voters to tune in.

Americans' dissatisfaction with politics starts at the local level, says Curtis Gans of the Committee for Study of the American Electorate, and is tied much more to the way campaigns are financed than the discourse surrounding debates. "Unless we fix the larger questions in our political system, this is always going to reach a limited number of people and not be a major corrective," he says of DebateWatch.

DebateWatch supporters counter that the debates are often turning points in the campaigns and that substantive conversations about them can evolve into a national political conversation. "Debates have a major effect in helping voters form and reinforce their views," says Anthony Corrado, Colby College professor and executive director of the 21st Century Fund's Task Force on Presidential Debates.

The project was born out of a study conducted during the last presidential election by the Commission on Presidential Debates. One of the things the commission learned from focus groups formed after the 1992 debates was that people enjoyed group discussions about the debates and wanted that experience to be more widely available in the next election.

So this year, organizers contacted hundreds of groups as diverse as the American Association of Retired Persons and the US Chamber of Commerce, asking them to alert their constituents to the project. A rough tally of participants for the first two debates numbered about 2,000.

To some DebateWatch-goers in Mari Tonn's living room in Portsmouth, the feedback they give to the debate planners and the candidates is a key aspect of the project. "I figure coming here is better than just mouthing off to [my wife] all the time. I figured this would be a little more useful," Gunning says.

"The nature of democracy has changed quite a bit," says participant Tom Coleman. "This is how we communicate with our politicians, so I think it's very important."

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