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The Role of Presidential Debates

In 1960, a sweaty, nervous looking, and makeup free Richard Nixon squared off against a youthful and energetic looking John F. Kennedy in the first nationally televised presidential debate. Historians generally agree that this televised appearance had a profound effect upon the result of the election. Since then, the importance of these debates has grown immensely. For many, these debates are what they rely upon to decide upon which candidate will receive their vote. With the 2016 election approaching and the debate cycle beginning, it is important to consider the role presidential debates have played in the past. This eLesson will help students better understand the role of presidential debates in presidential elections. Why is it so important that voters are given the opportunity to hear candidates discuss and debate key issues prior to elections? Furthermore, what role do presidential debates serve in modern election cycles? Does the current format of debates help or hurt this objective?

Resources Presidential Debates in History

PRO OPINION: Presidential Debates and Their Effects: Research Roundup

CON OPINION: Do Presidential Debates Usually Matter? Political Scientists Say No.

Activity: Elections and Debates Throughout History Research 1. Prior to teaching this lesson, review Presidential Debates in History, a Bill of Rights Institute Resource which covers some of the history surrounding presidential debates. You may want to review this lesson with your students in order to give them a better understanding of the history of presidential debates. Organize your students into groups and assign each group one of the following elections:

  • Presidential Election: Thomas Jefferson v. John Adams (1800)
  • Presidential Election of 1860
  • Presidential Election: Franklin Roosevelt v. Wendell Willkie (1940)
  • Presidential Election: John F. Kennedy v. Richard Nixon (1960)
  • Presidential Election: Ronald Reagan v. Jimmy Carter (1980)
  • Presidential Election: Barrack Obama v. Mitt Romney (2012)

2. Instruct each group to spend some time researching these elections, focusing on the importance that debates played in the election. Distribute the following questions to your students in order to help guide their research:

  • Were there any debates held? If so, what was the medium of the debate and how was it broadcast to the nation? In other words, was it conducted in person, written up in a newspaper, hosted on, or the radio or on television?
  • What were the major issues debated? How do these issues compare to issues that are debated today?
  • How much of a role did these debates play? Were these debates more or less influential than they are today?
  • If there was no debate, how did the candidates campaign and present their positions?

3. Allow each group to briefly share their research with the class. 4. Following each group’s presentation briefly discuss the elections listed above as a class in order to compare and contrast the various elections. Alternatively, you can heavily focus on this portion of the eLesson by having your students select two of the elections and create a Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting the chosen elections.

Activity: The Importance of Modern Debates Discussion 1. 1. In class, or as homework the night before, have your students review the two opinion articles regarding presidential debates and to conduct their own research. Encourage your students to consider the following questions as they read the above articles and any others they find:

  • What is the author’s main argument in this piece?
  • Why does the author argue that presidential debates are or are not important?
  • What would it take to change the authors perspective on the nature of presidential debates? What kinds of things would make the author change their mind regarding their opinion?

2. Conduct a Socratic style discussion with your class about the modern role of presidential debates. Organize your students in a way that will encourage discussion during this activity. Students will take turns speaking in a queue in which successive students contribute to the discussion with new or additional points. The focus should be to better understanding through discussion. Some sample discussion questions are listed below:

  • What do presidential debates allow voters to learn; what impact would voters not seeing debates have on modern elections?
  • Are debates effective in changing the minds of people who view them?
  • What changes to the debate system or format could make them more effective?
  • In what ways are modern debates similar or different from the historical debates we have discussed?