American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Debate Watch Parties in Bars and Online Platforms: Audiences, Political Culture, and Setting during the 2020 United States Presidential Election

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Joshua Atkinson (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Hyeyoung Bang (Other)

Third Advisor

Cynthia Baron (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

David Jackson (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Clayton Rosati (Committee Member)


The purpose of this dissertation is threefold. First, to investigate settings where audiences participated in the 2020 U.S. presidential election debates by organizing or attending debate watch parties. Second, to explore why these parties became meaningful for audiences. Third, to explore how the setting of these parties organized the sense-making for audiences of the debates. While no prior research on debate watch parties currently exists, they have become popular over the last five U.S. presidential elections and are significant in that they involve facets of political communication and political engagement not typically paired in American political culture: political consumerism, activism, sports spectatorship, and political cynicism. An ethnographic narrative excavation of debate watch parties—compiled from participant observations collected from my own field notes, open-ended surveys, and postmodern interviews—reveals six roles that audiences performed as they participated in these events: Marketeers, Public Seekers, Activists, Hosts, Antagonists, and Reluctant Partiers. I investigate how the setting organized these roles, comparing parties held in physically built bars and in online, virtual platforms, finding that both settings allowed for the construction of participatory civic identities amongst audiences. I evaluate how public interactions at debate watch parties in virtual environments mimicked the public interactions at parties hosted in bars, and particularly how political brand cultures crept into online environments. This leads to a discussion of how these audiences demonstrated the concept of creative narrative appropriation, particularly in the blending of electoral spectatorship with sports spectatorship. This underscores the stress and unease amongst audiences towards electoral politics, and how debate watch parties provided attendees and organizers with a safe social setting in which to publicly cope with these concerns.