A Guide to the Presidential Debates

Social Education, September 2004 | Go to article overview

A Guide to the Presidential Debates


THE NATIONALLY TELEVISED presidential debates play a decisive role in presidential elections. Though such debates only began in 1960 when John F. Kennedy faced off against Richard Nixon, they have become an essential part of the campaign process. They provide the only opportunities for voters to see the individuals running for president (and vice president) discuss important issues face-to-face. Without debates, voters would primarily have to rely on promotional ads, carefully crafted speeches, and published party materials to know where candidates stand on certain issues.

More than 60 million viewers watched the debates between Kennedy and Nixon. Though those debates are largely believed to have influenced the decisions of millions of voters, no presidential debates were held in the next three presidential elections. But, in 1976, the League of Women Voters brought debate back on the scene by sponsoring a match between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. However, in recent years viewership has declined dramatically. While in 1980, 60 percent of American households watched the debates, in 2000 only 30 percent of households tuned in.

In 1987, the chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties joined to form the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD, www.debates.org), the organization that has since sponsored the debates. Today, some civic groups argue that the debates have become exclusionary--blocking out popular third-party candidates. They argue that the rigid format restrictions instituted by the two major parties have led to less actual debate, more memorized soundbites, and subsequently a decline in viewer audience. These groups, such as Common Cause, The American Cause, and NYU Law School's Brennan Center for Justice among many others, want the presidential debates to be reformed and organized by citizen groups. They have banded together to form the independent Citizens' Debate Commission (www.citizensdebate.org), composed of seventeen civic leaders across the political spectrum. On the other hand, the Commission on Presidential Debates says the debates should focus on viable candidates. The commission requires participating candidates to "have a level of support of at least fifteen percent of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations ... "

THE 2004 DEBATES

First presidential debate

Thursday, September 30, 2004

University of Miami

Coral Gables, Fla.

Vice-presidential debate

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Case Western Reserve University

Cleveland, Ohio

Second presidential debate

Friday, October 8, 2004

Washington University in St. Louis

St. Louis, Mo.

Third presidential debate

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Arizona State University

Tempe, Ariz.

USEFUL WEBSITES

Commission on Presidential Debates

www.debates.org

League of Women Voters

www.lwv.org

LWV's Debate Archive on the Stuhler E-Library

www.lwv.org/elibrary/video.html

Citizens' Debate Commission

www.citizensdebate.org

Open Debates

www.OpenDebates.org

DemocracyNet (DNet)

www.DNet.org

Public Agenda

www.publicagenda.org/firstchoice2004

The Debate Book

www.debateproject.com

The following information provided by the CPD, describes the general format of the debates, provides a viewer's guide, and offers teaching tips.

The 2004 debates will vary in format. Either a single moderator, or citizens at a town hall will pose the candidates questions, and candidates also have the opportunity to challenge one another publicly on important points.

Format

* The candidates will be seated at a table with the moderator in the first and third presidential debates and in the vice presidential debate. …

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