How Presidential Debates Work

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].


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].