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University of Cincinnati aims for civility at presidential debate watch party

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Posted at 8:00 AM, Oct 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-09 09:29:52-04

CINCINNATI – Is cognitive dissonance a problem for you? Do you retreat to echo chambers when you’re online, seeking out safe places with ideas that don’t differ from your own?

If that’s the case, just how confident can you really be that you’re sufficiently informed about this year’s presidential campaign?

Richard Harknett sees that as a problem, and a contributor to the contentiousness of this election cycle.

But he sees the second debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as a chance to infuse some civility into the conversation and contribute to a more informed electorate in what could be the single most influential area in presidential politics.

“Hamilton County is a critical county for the entire state, and therefore the nation,” Harknett said.

Harknett, the head of the University of Cincinnati’s political science department, hopes members of the broader community will come together to engage with other voters at UC’s debate watch party this Sunday. Undecided or not, all are invited to attend the free event, which will be held in the Great Hall at the Tangeman University Center on UC’s Clifton campus.

The watch party will include a panel discussion with political science faculty before the debate that will set the tone for the evening. A question-and-answer session with the panelists after the debate concludes will offer a nonpartisan perspective focused on breaking down the significance of what the candidates said.

“Come and support your candidate. That’s great,” Harknett said. “We want it to be lively. But instead of listening to partisan analysis afterwards — who won, who lost — we’re going to try to be informational.

“What did we hear? Did they offer new policy nuances? Did they clarify their positions?”

The pre-debate panel, which Harknett will lead, will begin at 8:30 p.m., and will include political science professors David Niven, Rebecca Sanders and Rina Williams. Discussion topics will include a brief overview of where the election stands, the importance of Ohio in the election, international and foreign policy, and the importance of various voting blocs.

After the debate, the audience will be invited to participate in an online snap poll. Immediately following the debate, professors Laura Jenkins, Kim Conger, Brian Calfano and Andrew Lewis will take questions from the audience and online participants.

“It’s to contextualize what people are hearing, rather than trying to convince them of a particular position,” Harknett explained. “That’s what we’re trained to do, and that’s what we’re going to try to offer.”

UC’s watch party during the second debate of the 2012 election cycle drew an attendance of more than 600 people. Harknett’s not expecting that many people this year, as this year’s second debate is on a Sunday instead of a Tuesday. But that’s not how UC’s political scientists will measure the success of the event.

“My measure of success is going to be on the interaction side, rather than the numbers side,” Harknett said.

Those who attend the watch party will be encouraged to engage in real-time reaction to the debate online with their connected devices. Political science students will be measuring those reactions with data-analytics software for a class project, and the results might give a better hint of how Hamilton County residents will vote when they head to the polls.