How Presidential Debates Work

By: Josh Clark & Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 

Kennedy, Nixon, 1960 debate
In 1960, Republican Vice President Richard Nixon (left) and Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy took part in the first presidential debate ever televised. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This was a big mistake.

For the first time in history, the two party-nominated candidates for president of the United States were about to debate with television cameras trained on them. And President Richard Nixon was beginning to regret agreeing to it.

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In the studios of a CBS affiliate in Chicago on Sept. 26, 1960, he felt like death warmed over. The month earlier, he'd slammed his knee into a car door, an injury that developed into a staph infection. He'd just spent two weeks in the hospital, and now, with the cameras about to roll, he was sweating, 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) underweight and feeling terrible. Some guy had painted the backdrop almost the precise shade of gray as Nixon's suit, and he was fading into it. As if things couldn't possibly get worse, his opponent, Sen. John F. Kennedy, had spent the past month taking it easy on the campaign trail in sunny California. He looked tan, rested and as fit as Nixon had ever seen him.

That first debate was a groundbreaking event. More than 66 million people watched it on television [source: The Commission on Presidential Debates]. Historians would capitalize the "d" in debate and place the word "Great" in front of it. And Nixon looked seriously ill throughout.

Before the first debate, Nixon had been in the lead. The next day, polls showed Kennedy slightly ahead. Later polls found more than half of voters said the televised series of four debates had shaped how they cast their ballots (Nixon was judged to have won two of the later debates by voters). Six percent said they voted specifically according to their impression of the debates [source: History]. In November, Kennedy won the presidential election.

No longer was politics only about the issues and whatever a campaign could plant in the papers; they were also about aesthetics now. No longer were debates for the benefit of the few people in a room. They were now about the tens of millions who tuned in not only to listen to the candidates but also to watch them as well.

It's often said that radio listeners thought Nixon had one that first debate while TV viewers gave Kennedy the edge. But in reality, this wasn't true. A survey was taken of 2,100 people, and only 282 of them listened to the debate on the radio. The vast majority watched it on TV and there is no evidence to support the fact that the medium influenced a person's opinion of who won the debate [source: Morelli].

Another question was whether Kennedy's performance on that first debate won him the election. Some say it did, others say it didn't [source: Morelli]. But since Kennedy's win over Nixon was very narrow, it's safe to assume that Kennedy's good performance must have swung a few folks over to his side and helped him to victory.

Nixon refused to debate in subsequent presidential runs, but later candidates have all taken a turn at the podium and the presidential debate has become part of the decision-making process of Election Day in the U.S. So how did the presidential debates get started and how do they work?

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A Brief History of U.S. Presidential Debates

Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Douglas debate
Abraham Lincoln speaks at the Lincoln-Douglas debates, 1858. Bettman/Getty Images

In the United States, the presidential debates were actually born out of a series of seven Illinois senatorial debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. The debates, with no moderator or panel, were the result of Lincoln following Douglas on his campaign trail around the state. A few days after Douglas gave a speech in a given locale, Lincoln would do the same. Douglas eventually agreed to take the stage with Lincoln seven times for three hours each to debate the moral and economic quandaries posed by slavery. The effects of their senatorial debates (Douglas won the seat) wouldn't be seen immediately; Lincoln didn't debate at all during his successful campaign for president two years later in 1860 [source: Kuzemchak].

All remained quiet on the debate front; 15 election cycles passed without much public argument between candidates — the dialogue was separate, usually in the form of campaign speeches. In 1948, the presidential debate would get a boost with a radio broadcast of a debate between Republican primary contenders Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen. Between 40 and 80 million listeners tuned into the radio broadcast of the pair's debate over outlawing communism in the United States.

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Still, debates didn't really catch on. Even after the first televised debate (featuring all of the potential candidates) in 1952, hosted by the League of Women Voters (LWV), an organization that would play an enormous role in shaping presidential debates in the U. S., debates still remained peripheral to the process of selecting a president.

Once the Kennedy-Nixon series was held, though, the concept of presidential debates took off like a rocket. The public began to expect debate between candidates; debates became an American institution. With all of the weight debates now carried, they could also be construed as lightning in a bottle. To Nixon and other candidates who followed, the bottle had to be safely capped. Lyndon Johnson turned down requests to debate in 1964, as did Nixon in the 1968 campaign. Once elected, Nixon used his presidential veto power to override a bill that repealed the equal time provision of the Communications Act of 1934.

This law required that candidates in national elections must have equal exposure in the media. That meant that if a station permitted use of its broadcasting facilities to one candidate, it had to do it for all of them. Networks didn't want to turn over airtime to every candidate, whether big or small, so Congress passed a law to repeal this provision but Nixon vetoed it in 1970 [source: PBS].

During the 20th century, candidates used the equal time provision to their advantage. By refusing to debate, any candidate could effectively cripple a proposed debate. Certainly, there was a measure of bad press associated with turning down an invitation to debate. But bad press is better than bad television exposure any day of the week, as the Nixon showing in 1960 had taught. Furthermore, exploiting the equal time provision became a tool favored by front-runners in an election cycle. Bad press from a refusal to debate is far outweighed by the potential harm provided by debating a rival candidate who may have a good showing and possibly sway millions of voters.

In 1975, the FCC created a loophole to get around the equal time provision. It said that as long as debates were "bona fide news events" sponsored by some organization other than the networks, they would be exempt from equal time requirements. The nonpartisan LWV stepped in to take the reins of the political process away from campaign strategists and ran the debates for eight years. In 1988, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) took over and became the only organization capable of legitimately hosting presidential debates.

Other debates, held before the candidates are nominated at the conventions, are hosted by news agencies and television networks and aren't official presidential debates. The CPD oversees height requirements for podiums and room temperature at debate halls, chooses moderators, and serves as a propaganda arm for both the Republican and Democratic parties. The creation of the CPD ultimately tolled the death of spontaneity in presidential debates.

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The Ideal Debate

Obama, McCain 2008 debate
Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama (left) and Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (right) smile at the end of the presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York in 2008. In this debate format, the candidates sat around a table with a moderator. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Spontaneity is perhaps the most important factor in a debate. Without spontaneous responses culled through follow-up questions, debates are nothing more than well-rehearsed press releases spouted off by the candidates on television. Debates are also meant to be nonpartisan. An ideal debate should be open to all candidates who qualify, and the format should be fair to all candidates participating. This makes neutrality, the division of time, the moderation and the type of format chosen of vital importance to presidential debates.

Selecting a neutral site for a debate can be difficult. No location can be selected in a candidate's home state or hometown. Since presidential debates are often held at colleges and universities, any of the candidates' alma maters are out. Most tiny towns are out of the running: The Commission on Presidential Debates' (CPD) minimum requirements, like an air-conditioned debate hall of at least 15,000 square feet (1,393 square meters) and at least 3,000 available hotel rooms, generally ensure small towns won't land a debate. The prestige associated with hosting a debate is such that even places passed over in favor of others still gush over having been considered [source: The Commission on Presidential Debates].

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A fair division of time among the candidates is tradition in debates. Candidates are provided with an equal amount of time to give opening and closing statements about the issues and what the audience has heard during the debate. It's the time in between that can be divided in different ways. In some cases, time may be evenly split strictly through allowing candidates an allotted amount of time to respond to questions. Other formats allow for rebuttals, especially when an issue is slanted toward one candidate or another. The rarest division of time allows candidates to cross-examine one another on an issue.

There are a few established formats for debates. Under the moderator format, a debate is hosted by a single person (sometimes two), usually a TV journalist, who poses questions to the candidates, directs them to rebut and manages response times. Usually, the candidates stand at podiums across from each other. Sometimes, they sit at the same table with a moderator in between, to encourage a more informal exchange. In the panelist format, the single moderator is replaced with several people. A town hall meeting format has members of the audience asking questions. This format is meant to create the most spontaneous atmosphere of the three types.

For 2020, there will be three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. Each will be 90 minutes long and will have one moderator and a limited numbers of attenders, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The debates will be divided into six 15-minute sections, each on a different topic. One of the three debates will be in a town hall format [source: Washington Post].

To qualify for a debate, a candidate has to have a statistically feasible chance of being able to win a majority of the votes available in the Electoral College. The formula for determining this chance is based on the number of states with ballots on which the candidate's name appears — the number of states a candidate could win simply by appearing on the ballot. The candidate also must have at least 15 percent support among the national electorate, according to five national public opinion surveying organizations, before the debates begin [source: The Commission on Presidential Debates].

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Presidential Debates Under the League of Women Voters

Reagan, Bush, Anderson 1980 debate
Republican candidates enjoy a laugh at the start of the 1980 Presidential Forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, including (L-R) Congressman Philip Crane, George Bush, moderator Howard K. Smith, Ronald Reagan and Congressman John Anderson. Bettman/Getty Images

The League of Women Voters (LWV) is an organization born immediately after the 19th Amendment made the women's suffrage movement obsolete. Now granted the right to vote, the suffrage movement looked to encourage women to use their new power to participate in shaping public policy [source: LWV]. In 1975, the coalition used its power to become the hosts of the 1976 presidential debates.

This was not new for the league. In 1952, it hosted the first nationally televised debate in U.S. history. It differed from the televised Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 in that all candidates from both parties were present instead of just the two nominated candidates. The league remained out of the arena of debates until the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) amended the equal time provision [source: McCraw].

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The LWV stepped in as the third party needed for this new regulation and hosted presidential debates from 1976 to 1984. The LWV codified the formats of presidential debates, splitting them into categories based on how questions are asked. The league used an open format, allowing follow-up questions among candidates. These types of questions are difficult to prepare for before a debate — they're unpredictable.

The league ran a tight ship. As a nonpartisan organization, it was ardent in affording equal time to all candidates. The organization was also the keeper of the format, the questions and the debate in general. It served as host, and the candidates were invited to participate or not; the debate would go on without them. The LWV's refusal to acquiesce to candidates' demands made presidential debates a powerful force in U.S. politics. When Jimmy Carter refused to debate with both Republican nominee Ronald Reagan and independent candidate John Anderson in 1980, the LWV held the debate without Carter. Reagan went on to win the election, and his performance at the debates without Carter to contend with was one factor in his win [source: PBS].

This made presidential debates dangerous, and not just to Democrats like Carter. In a given election cycle, candidates from any party could face humiliation, the loss of a lead in the polls and defeat, all because of a single debate. So, the two major parties in the United States came together to wrest control of presidential debates from the League of Women Voters.

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The Commission on Presidential Debates

Trump, Clinton, 2016 debate
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks while Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens during a town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, 2016. Brooks Kraft/ Getty Images

In 1984, the cooperation between the Republican and Democratic parties led to a joint veto of almost 100 proposed panelists for the first debate. The following election cycle saw more of a grab for control by the two major parties. The campaigns of George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis met without the knowledge of the League of Women Voters (LWV) and drafted a memorandum of understanding. This secret document specified who would be allowed sit in the audience during the '88 debates and who would serve as panelists, even abolishing follow-up questions. Under these terms, the LWV would be left to merely host and would have no say in how the debates were held.

In disgust, the League of Women Voters exposed the memorandum and resigned as hosts of presidential debates, citing the "fraud on the American voter" being carried out by the two major parties [source: PBS]. To fill the void left by the LWV, the Democrats and Republicans formed the joint nonprofit bipartisan organization The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).

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The CPD has been organizing and hosting presidential debates since 1988. A few other organizations have tried to host over the years, but their proposals never went anywhere. The CPD typically schedules three to four debates, held after the nominating conventions, including at least one vice-presidential debate. Usually a year before the debates begin, the locations (including alternate locations) and the moderators are announced. Party debates during the primaries and those held before the conventions are often called presidential debates, but they aren't official unless the CPD is involved, even if these campaigns have similar agreements with the networks hosting and broadcasting the CPD debates.

In 1992, Reform Party candidate Ross Perot had a 7 percent rating in the polls before the presidential debates. On Election Day, Perot had 19 percent of the vote, the largest-ever jump for a presidential candidate [source: PBS]. Proving himself a risk to the other candidates, Bob Dole's and Bill Clinton's campaigns excluded him from the presidential debates through the CPD when he ran again in 1996. Perot later sued the major television networks for failing to grant him equal time, but since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changed the provision in 1975, Perot lost his suits [source: FCC].

The fallout from Perot's exclusion from the debates illustrates one of the vital services the CPD provides the two major parties. It acts as a shield. Despite the Democrats and Republicans drafting memorandums of understanding and deciding who can participate, it's the CPD that publicly issues the decisions, so it's the CPD that accepts the public's ire. But since it isn't beholden to the public, the CPD has nothing to lose.

What's more, the formats of presidential debates under the CPD lent themselves to pat, rehearsed answers that offer little insight into the candidates' views of the issues. In 2000, Sen. John Kerry (who would be the Democratic candidate four years later) criticized the debates: "You could have picked 10 people off the street who didn't know Jerusalem from Georgia and they would have had better questions" [source: Wilson].

For its part, the CPD says that "the major parties have no role whatsoever in running the CPD or setting its policies" and notes that many "distinguished Americans" who are not politicians are on its board. Further, it receives no funding from the government, nor from any political party or PAC. Funding comes from corporations and private donations. Since 2000, the organization has retained Dr. Frank Newport, of Gallup Poll to select the five public opinion polls used in determining which candidates are invited to debate. It notes that the candidates of the two main parties are not automatically invited, nor are third-party candidates automatically excluded.

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Presidential Debates: Who Wins?

Lloyd Bentsen, Dan Quayle, VP debate
Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (Dem.) (left) debates Sen. Dan Quayle (Rep.) during the 1988 vice-presidential campaign. Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Debates are meant to be about candidates' views on the issues, and no response is incorrect. So, if there's no right or wrong answers in a debate, how can one candidate emerge a winner?

The results of debates are all about perception. There are the perceptions of the national news anchors, who serve as commentators by telling viewers what to expect beforehand and then dissecting what was said afterward. There's also the perception of the media, who write about the debate. What commentators and reporters choose to discuss can help shape the minds of the voting public — the group whose opinion matters the most in determining the winner of a debate.

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Sometimes, the candidates make it obvious who's lost. President George H.W. Bush made it an easy call when he checked his watch several times during a town hall debate in the 1992 election [source: Zelizer]. In the 2004 debates between Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush, the television networks ignored the memorandum of understanding and filmed reaction shots. They caught Bush looking annoyed during breakaway shots, which occur when the camera switches from the candidate speaking to the one who's not [source: AP].

The winner of a debate can become equally clear — sometimes just through a mere turn of phrase. When Senator Dan Quayle compared himself to President John F. Kennedy in a 1988 vice-presidential debate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen pounced on him. "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" [source: National Public Radio]. When President Ronald Reagan's age became an issue of discussion in a 1984 debate, he turned the tables, saying, "I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney appeared out of touch with women's rights when asked to address pay equity and he made this boast, "I had the chance to pull together a Cabinet, and all of the applicants seemed to be men ... I went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks?' and they bought us whole binders full of women." The phrase "binders full of women" quickly became a joke at his expense [source: Cunningham].

Ultimately, what matters is who the public thinks won a debate. Polling companies have made an industry of keeping track of what voters think. As soon as a debate ends, polling companies and media agencies have employees on the phone calling registered voters to ask them what they thought of the debate. Within hours, polls are released and the winners are clear. The results can come more quickly through snap polling, where voters go to the pollsters via the internet or some other aspect of new media.

The veracity of post-debate polls in accurately pinning down voter sentiment can be hit or miss. While polls almost across the board showed Kerry as the winner of the three presidential debates in 2004, George W. Bush won re-election [source: CNN]. In 2016, Hillary Clinton soundly trounced Donald Trump in all three presidential debates, according to Gallup, yet Donald Trump triumphed on Election Day [source: Gallup]. Snap polls are often contested since they require a level of tech-savvy and therefore represent younger segments of the voting population rather than the voting public as a whole. The very presence of polls can also affect voter sentiment. Polls released showing a clear winner from a debate can affect the perception of the outcome of a debate, influencing voter perception.

The advent of snap polls has inspired a resurgence of technology in presidential debates. For the first time since 1960, technology would begin to play a major role in shaping the political process in the 2008 election.

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Technology and the Presidential Debate

Presidential campaigns managing debates from the primaries to Election Day later moved to wrestle control of them, moving from an open format that afforded candid insight into the candidates and causing them to become wooden and unfocused. But after a couple decades, technology interceded to change the rules of debate, as it had in 1960.

In the 2008 presidential primaries, CNN hosted two debates for both Democrat and Republican candidates using questions submitted by voters via YouTube. While the format was a groundbreaking one, it was widely criticized. Some critics questioned why YouTube and CNN didn't allow YouTube viewers to choose which video questions candidates would answer. Still, the shared billing of the media (CNN) with new media (YouTube) was an undeniable indicator that technology was making a comeback at influencing presidential politics through debate. "We think that politics will never be the same (thankfully)," wrote Steve Grove, the head of news and politics for YouTube after the debates [source: Official Google Blog].

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YouTube wasn't the only new media kid on the block that made a showing in the 2008 race. MySpace and MTV joined forces to host a series of town hall forums. The forums had only one candidate at a time, with viewers submitting questions through instant messaging and email. The format was well-received by tech wonks; the real-time questions were chosen live by the moderator. The candidates were rated by viewers, with the results posted simultaneously on MySpace and the MTV broadcast [source: Wired].

The social networking service Twitter also turned up in 2008. Official surrogates for Barack Obama and John McCain responded to questions from Time magazine's Ana Marie Cox via text messaging. By signing up to receive tweets from the moderator and the responses from the candidates' representatives, anyone with a cell phone could tune in. The Twitter format allows for no more than 280 characters, so responses were forced to be concise and to the point.

By 2012, the public was watching the presidential debates on television while simultaneously following commentary on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. But a subsequent study found that viewers doing such multitasking learned less about the candidates than those focused strictly on watching the debates. More intriguing, the social media multitaskers were more likely to miss information favorable to their preferred candidate. "Those who favored Obama tended to learn less about Obama, and those who favored Romney tended to learn less about Romney than the candidates' supporters who were watching the debate but not following social media," the author of the study said [source: Annenberg Public Policy Center].

Today, most people get their news through social media as opposed to television or print. And that includes news about the presidential debates. So before debating, presidential candidates prepare zingy one-liners that they can hopefully deliver, and which will be instantly and extensively tweeted, shared and discussed on social media [source: Pfeiffer]. Yet paradoxically, the public is also tiring of political posts. Two months before the 2020 presidential election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, a survey found 55 percent of adult social media users were "worn out" by the excessive number of political posts and discussions, an 18-point hike since the question was asked in the summer before the 2016 contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton [source: Anderson and Auxier].

In 2020, people will increasingly be watching the debates over a streaming service as opposed to a broadcast or cable channel. YouTube statistics from the 2016 presidential debates found that the average YouTube viewer watched the three debates for 22 minutes. (Each debate is normally 90 minutes.) Whether social media or streaming changes the presidential debates format remains to be seen. Either technology will emerge as the victor, creating more transparency in the political process, or the major parties will figure out a way to exploit the new technology to their own ends. No matter the result, presidential debates will remain part of the presidential process. They've become an American tradition, one that may evolve but will always remain.

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Originally Published: Sep 17, 2020

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