• Sofiia Skrypkar

History of Presidential Debates: Is Improvement Possible?


On Tuesday, September 29, 2020, Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, Joe Biden and Donald Trump had their first of three presidential debates. Following what can only be known as the worst presidential debate in modern history, many people began to question the debate's effectiveness of delivering the political stances of each candidate. The flurry of misinformation, personal jabs, and incessant overlap left viewers helpless and confused, evading the entire goal of informing undecided voters. Is there a way to make the presidential debates better?


The Beginning

In 1987, the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan and independent organization, was founded to engage presidential candidates in a series of debates leading up to election day. Institutions such as Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Harvard University Institute of Politics noted the importance of debates as a method to outline the candidate's stances and further their public image, thus, the support of these debates by universities was integral in American politics and presidential elections. 


1858: Lincoln and Douglas's Presidential Debate

Debates serving as platforms of decision making have been around in the United States since 1858 - since the Lincoln-Douglas debates were held for the Illinois senate seat. These debates were three hours long, with each candidate given the chance to speak for an uninterrupted hour and thirty minutes for rebuttal, in contrast with today's ninety-minute debates, candidates receive two minutes for rebuttals and ten minutes to state their stances.


However, America’s debates between politicians have not withstood the test of time, as advances in communication and the expansion of media have led to more people being connected to a world of information. From newspapers to radio stations to television, each was key to introducing America to its presidential candidates, as more and more people had the ability to vote. 


1960: Nixon and Kennedy's Presidential Debate

Presidential debates were, in fact, uncommon and unheard of until 1960, when four debates between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy were televised for the first time to the country. Prior to 1960, most presidential candidates relied on campaigning from state to state, using newspapers, magazines, and radio stations to advance their likability among eligible voters. The broadcasting of debates proved immensely paramount in influencing a voter’s perception of each candidate. Nixon, who had just come back from campaigning all over the country, was tired; his opponent on the other hand was fresh-faced and well-rested.1 This simple dynamic of body language impacted voters, and Kennedy won the election. 


Body language is crucial in presidential debates , and the 1960 Nixon and Richard Debate was only the first step in realizing the influence of debates on likely voters. However, happens when the debates begin to inundate listeners with unnecessary insults between candidates and political dogma?


Is Improvement Possible?

2020 has been a turning point for America. In a time of a pandemic, resurfacing of racial injustices, and our growing political polarization, many are looking anxiously to leadership for direction and assurance. The presidential election is obviously critical, to each party, and the presidential debates could serve as the forum that they were meant to be in a fracturing time. So, how can we make the presidential debates better?


Recognizing the mission of the Commission on Presidential Debates, we know that these events are held in order to provide one place where undecided voters can learn about each candidate and their stances on pressing issues. However, this has become increasingly difficult as candidates in both primary and presidential debates have begun to interrupt each other, scrambling for airtime and whatever may capture the attention of the media. In an effort to combat this, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania has compiled a report on democratizing debate in our country, outlining several suggestions on how to restructure the debates. Here are a few of them:


1. Reformat the way presidential candidates debate


Both the Annenberg Project for democratizing debates and the Commission on Presidential Debates both have referred to the Lincoln-Douglas model an improved style of debate. Each candidate is able to provide a broader context on issues, as well as respond and cross-examine each other. The Annenberg project also cites “The Chess-Clock” model, where each candidate is allotted forty-five minutes to speak across eight blocks of topics divided evenly. At any point when a candidate wants to answer a question or provide a rebuttal, the candidate must claim their three minutes to speak by hitting a chess clock. The other candidate remains silent unless wishing to speak by hitting the chess clock. This system provides a structure for rebuttals and speaking time, allowing candidates to spontaneously respond and interact with questions. 


2. Broaden the moderator pool 


Since many moderators are news reporters, focused on providing newsworthy moments and only pulling from their past knowledge of each candidate, they may not serve as the best moderators. By allowing retired judges, university presidents, and field experts to serve as moderators, there is greater room for more issues-based questions to be asked that exist outside of the news ecosystem. 


3. Remove the audience


The cheers, jeers, and applause from audience members can often take away from what is trying to be said. Candidates can become too focused on performing for the audience, which subconsciously cues audiences at home to react the same way. Taking away live audiences not only minimizes the extravaganza of the debate, but it also allows viewers to consciously take in what is being said. 


The history of bettering voter engagement and expanding presidential campaigns through debate is not new. However, it is a fight that needs to persist in order for America to remain the democracy it set out to be. 


Additional sources used: (1)

Wood, Ethel, and Stephen C. Sansone. American Government: A Complete Coursebook. Great Source Education Group. 2000 




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