Accessibility links

Breaking News

Debates Seen as Important Part of US Election Process

Debates between nominated presidential candidates have become a pre-election fixture in the United States. In this segment of "How America Elects," VOA's Jeffrey Young looks at the impact of the three debates between the presidential nominees, and the single vice presidential debate.

In the weeks before Election Day, the major party presidential candidates pitch their views to voters in televised debates. Even as the election draws near, there are still uncommitted voters for each side to persuade. The uncommitted often decide elections. And that is why the debates are seen as important for capturing the White House.

By September, voters have seen and heard the candidates for many months. But the campaign trail is typically littered with slogans and messages. The TV debates are where voters can get further details on the candidates' proposals according to Democratic Party marketing strategist Peter Fenn.

"The cynics say, you know, 'Gee, you know, aren't we over politicking here? Haven't we seen too much of these guys [candidates]?' Look, let's ask them the tough questions," Fenn said. "Let's get them up in front of the lights and take a good hard look at them."

While these candidate clashes are called debates, the way they are conducted more closely resembles an interview. Government professor Candice Nelson at American University describes the way it works.

"For two of the three presidential debates, and the vice presidential debate, there will be a single moderator who will pose questions to each of the candidates," she said. "And the opposite candidate will have a chance to respond to what the first candidate who answers the question says. The thinking is [that] by having a moderator there, it is a way to control the debate to make sure that the questions get answered fairly, that each candidate has equal time, and they can't just - one candidate - shout down the other."

The two moderated debates are separated into foreign and domestic policy. The third is done in a so-called "town hall" format where citizens ask the questions.

Televised debates have been a part of every presidential election since 1976. But the 1960 TV debates between Democratic Senator John Kennedy and the Republican Vice President Richard Nixon set the medium in motion.

Johns Hopkins University Professor Ben Ginsburg describes what happened.

In 1960, polls indicated that people who heard Kennedy and Nixon [debate] on the radio, for the most part, thought Nixon had won," he said. "Whereas, people who saw it on television thought Kennedy had won. Kennedy had the right qualities for a TV appearance."

One candidate who successfully used TV during the debates was Republican Ronald Reagan. In 1980, he posed a question that some say helped to defeat the incumbent, Democratic President Jimmy Carter.

"I think [that] when you make that [voting] decision, it might be well if you ask yourself 'Are you better off [today] than you were four years ago,'" Reagan asked.

With TV so influential, and time running out to sway the electorate, the debates have become a place where candidates can both fire and pick up ammunition.

"What each candidate tries to do is to get a 'sound bite' during the debate that will be played over and over again on the media," Nelson said.

Especially if their opponent stumbles badly on camera.