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Explained: How important are US presidential and vice-presidential debates?

As per the Pew Research Center, presidential and vice-presidential debates have long played a significant role in the way Americans choose their leaders.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: October 19, 2020 12:22:31 pm
us elections 2020, US presidential elections 2020, US elections, US elections debate, US presidential election debates, donald trump, donald trump covid, joe biden, biden trump debateTrump and Biden’s first debate has been criticised by many for not delving enough on relevant issues and matters of policy. CNN’s editor-at-large called the debate “horrendous” in his analysis

Late on Friday night, the second presidential date scheduled to happen on October 15 between US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was officially cancelled as Trump refused to participate in a virtual debate.

Given Trump’s illness and the uncertainty about his health, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) had tried to shift the debate to a remote format, but the president soundly rejected the proposal and instead planned to resume his signature rallies, beginning on Monday in Florida.

Have presidential debates ever been conducted remotely?

The first nationally televised presidential debate happened in 1960, between John F Kennedy and incumbent Richard Nixon. On October 13, 1960, the third presidential debate held between Kennedy and Nixon would be the first and only time that presidential candidates did not share the same platform. The debate was moderated by Bill Shadel of ABC News and featured a split-screen telecast with panelists in the ABC studio in Los Angeles and Kennedy in the ABC studio in New York. This debate was viewed by over 63.7 million people.

“In New York, the Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John F. Kennedy; separated by three thousand miles in a Los Angeles studio, the Republican presidential nominee, Vice President Richard M. Nixon; now joined for tonight’s discussion by a network of electronic facilities which permits each candidate to see and hear the other,” Shadel began the debate that day.

But even before Kennedy and Nixon’s debate, the first televised debate happened between Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson who challenged incumbent Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.

Interestingly, Stevenson and Eisenhower did not even appear on this debate, rather two surrogates debated the issues for the candidates on network television, according to the website of the US Senate. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt debated in place of Stevenson and senior senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith represented Eisenhower. This debate took place on the CBS program “Face the Nation” and took place two days before the general elections and, “focused almost entirely on issues of foreign policy.”

National debates and what the candidates discussed

Trump and Biden’s first debate has been criticised by many for not delving enough on relevant issues and matters of policy. CNN’s editor-at-large called the debate “horrendous” in his analysis and added that it was “an absolutely awful debate that did absolutely nothing to educate the public about the two candidates and what they would do if given four years to serve as president of the United States.”

us elections 2020, US presidential elections 2020, US elections, US elections debate, US presidential election debates, donald trump, donald trump covid, joe biden, biden trump debate Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

National debates have been held for every presidential election since 1976 and have been sponsored by the CPD since 1988. Before 1976, debates were held for four elections including the Illinois Senate debates held in 1858 that featured Abraham Lincoln as he made arguments against slavery while debating Stephen Douglas. Following is a list of some of the national debates held since then and what the participants talked about.

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1948: The next record of a debate with CPD comes after 90 years in 1948, which was the Oregon Republican Presidential Primary debate held between Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen on May 17, 1948 at the KEX-ABC radio station in Portland, Oregon. The debate had a listenership of an estimated 40-80 million people and lasted for an hour. The main topics of discussion were outlawing the Communist Party in the US. As per CPD, this debate was the “first and last” presidential debate that was limited to a single issue.

1956: The Florida Democratic Presidential Primary Debate was held on May 21, 1956, in Miami, Florida between Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver. It lasted one hour and the topics of discussion were focussed on foreign and domestic policy.

1960: These elections saw four presidential debates and no vice-presidential debates. The first presidential debate held between Kennedy and Nixon was viewed by more than 66 million people and focussed on domestic issues. It was held in Chicago, Illinois and lasted for one hour.

1976: These elections saw three presidential debates and featured the first formal vice-presidential debate held between Democrat Walter Mondale and Republican Bob Dole. The topic of discussions for the presidential debates included foreign, defense issues and domestic issues.

1980: Two presidential and no vice-presidential elections were held. The second presidential debate of this year held between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan had a viewership of about 80.6 million, one of the highest, and the topics of discussion included domestic and economic issues, foreign policy and national security.

1992: There were three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate. All three presidential debates were held between three candidates, Democrat Bill Clinton, Republican incumbent George Bush and Independent candidate Ross Perot.

2012: These elections saw three presidential and one vice-presidential debate. The presidential debates were held between incumbent Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney. The vice presidential debate was held between Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan.

2016: The first presidential debate between Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton lasted for 90 minutes and saw one of the highest viewerships at over 84 million.

How influential are these debates for voters?

As per the Pew Research Center, presidential and vice-presidential debates have long played a significant role in the way Americans choose their leaders. During these debates, voters get to listen to the candidates and gauge what their priorities could be once they assume office.

According to post-election surveys conducted by the center since 1988, in most cases, three-fifths or more of the voters said that the debates were “very or somewhat helpful” in deciding which candidate to vote for. As per this survey, about 70 percent of the voters said that the presidential debates between Clinton, Bush and Perot in 1992 were “at least somewhat helpful”.

“However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that large numbers of voters are waiting for the debates to make up their minds,” the center says. For instance, in the 2016 debates between Clinton and Trump, only 10 percent of the voters said that “they had definitively made up their minds “during or just after” the presidential debates.”

Critics of these debates such as Michelle Cottle of The New York Times have said that over time these debates “have degenerated into media spectacles, showcasing much that is wrong with both electoral politics and journalism” and therefore offer less substance and more “cheap zingers”.

Significantly, as per data provided by Nielsen Media Research, the viewership of these debates has gone down from 60 percent in 1960 to 38 percent in 2012. A report published by the Annenberg Debate Reform Working Group in 2015 called for more work to be done on enriching the contents of these debates, enlarging their audiences and improving accessibility. The report also noted that the debates have become an “extravaganza”.

Vice-presidential debates on the other hand are not considered as significant and have typically attracted lesser viewership than the presidential ones. Pew notes one exception to this, however. The 2008 vice-presidential debate between Biden and Sarah Palin was watched by over 69 million people, which is more than any of the three presidential debates during that year.

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