What’s the Point of a Presidential Debate?
Last week’s presidential debate was certainly an interesting spectacle to watch. Teetering back and forth between entertainment and pure frustration, I couldn’t help but constantly come back to one thought the whole night – why didn’t Chris Wallace have a mute button for the candidates’ mics? I found myself thinking that the whole debate would go much more smoothly if it was run more like a Zoom meeting, where the moderator could mute the mics of the participants when it wasn’t their turn to speak. It was at times hard for me to sift through the chaos of the event and even make sense of the platforms and opinions being debated. The whole thing got me thinking, what’s the point of a presidential debate, anyway?
On a basic level, the point of a presidential debate is to give the candidates a forum to address key issues that voters care about in a face-to-face format so that undecided voters can compare their answers and pick the candidate whose platform best matches their beliefs. This purpose can be seen in the first significant political debate, which took place in 1856 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. The two were senatorial candidates for the state of Illinois – so it was a little different than the presidential debates of today – but this is where the concept of political debates gets its start. Back then, the debates were three-hour long events in which one candidate would give an hour-long speech about their platform and the issues that were important to them, then, the opposing candidate would respond with a 90-minute rebuttal, and finally the first candidate would close with 30 minutes of additional remarks. Allowing candidates to speak at length about their platforms accomplishes the goal of informing undecided voters.
The first presidential debate in US history also demonstrates this purpose. The 1956 election between Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower saw the first presidential debate, however neither candidate was present. Instead, each side had a representative debate on the merits of their party’s platform. Former first lady Elenor Roosevelt and senator Margaret Chase Smith (that’s right, the first presidential debate was actually between two women!) took to the stage to convince voters that their party’s candidate had the most favorable platform. Emphasising the platform rather than the candidate demonstrates this original purpose of presidential debates, however things changed quite a bit in the next election cycle.
The 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was the first time that presidential candidates actually appeared on national television for a debate against one another. This shifted the focus from the platform of the candidate to their performance and presentation. Interestingly, Americans who listened to the debate on the radio thought that Nixon was the clear winner, whereas those who watched it on TV thought that Kennedy clearly prevailed. How could there be such a drastic difference in public opinion? Many people claim that on television, Kennedy came off confident and poised, whereas Nixon looked visually uncomfortable, sweaty, and disheveled.
As the country has continued to move into an era of televised debates, there seems to be less importance placed on what the candidates say and more on how they say it. Which again begs the question, what’s the point of a presidential debate? Perhaps today the point is for candidates to display their charisma, their power, their confidence, and their ability to convince voters that they are the type of leader the country needs. We can debate which purpose is better, but it’s important to recognize that the candidates’ platforms and their personalities are both on display for the nation when they step onto the debate stage. We will see how the vice presidential candidates do in their debate tomorrow evening, and we’ll see the presidential candidates again on the 15th and the 22nd. Maybe by then we’ll have a better understanding of the point of a presidential debate, and if nothing else we can walk away as better leaders with examples of what to do and what not to do when we find ourselves in a position to debate with other leaders.
As leaders, we need to think about what we are going to say as well as how we are going to say it. Debates are about form just as much as they are about content. Practice your debating skills with the October 2020 Activity of the Month, Early Bird vs Second Mouse.
- Comedian Stephen Wright states, “The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”
- Nominate one team to be ‘early bird’ and the other team to be ‘second mouse’.
- Give the teams 10 minutes to prepare a 1 minute presentation on why their strategy would be best for business (or work or life, depending on situation). Encourage the teams to make use of the knowledge and abilities and views of all team members in creating their presentations.
- After the two presentations, conduct a 5-10 minute debate between the teams of the question: “Early bird or second mouse: Which is the most effective strategy for business (or work or life)?”
- After the debate hold a ‘free’ vote to see what the combined group now believes about the question. Allow but do not encourage abstentions (‘don’t knows’). Encourage group members to vote as individuals, putting their team loyalty to one side.
*Meet the Author*
Morgan is the Program Coordinator for Leadership Inspirations. He has a B.A. in Integrated Educational Studies and an M.A. in Leadership Development from Chapman University.
Favorite quote: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end” – John Lennon
Fun facts: 1) I once trained my pet goldfish to play basketball 2) When I was little I wanted to be a Disneyland parking attendant 3) I’m a big Justin Timberlake fan