US Presidential debates: what you need to know

14 October 2020 20:00
Reading time: 5 mins
  1. How it all started
  2. The 2020 Presidential Campaign Debates
  3. The first presidential debate – the takeaway
  4. Vice presidential debate – the takeaway
  5. What makes this year’s debate unlike any other?
  6. What’s next?
  • 1

    How it all started

    Presidential debates  a showcase of each US election season  have become a very important part of the electoral process. The first televised presidential debate was held in 1960 between then Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, and it was widely credited as a win for Kennedy. It also ushered in a new era in which media exposure became an essential ingredient of a successful political campaign.

    The four debates of 1960 were followed by a 12-year long pause, but from 1972, every presidential campaign has included televised debates which have shaped many election outcomes. Over the years presidential debates have assumed different formats, from “town hall” meetings between candidates (sometimes the three of them  Democratic, Republican and Independent) when members of the audience get to ask questions, to a series of broadcast events between the major candidates with a moderator asking questions. A vice presidential debate between two running mates is usually broadcast as a separate event. In 1987 Democrats and Republicans created the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates that has sponsored the event ever since and picked moderators to host the discussion.

    From today’s perspective presidential debates of the 60’s and 70’s look like a model of political restraint and decorum, with candidates actually listening and the sharpest criticism being usually reserved for the Soviet Union. Sixty years on, candidates interrupt and hurl personal insults at each other, label their opponents “a liar” and “a clown” and question their mental health. This election campaign is no exception.

  • 2

    The 2020 Presidential Campaign Debates

    The current election season is to be highlighted by three televised debates between the candidates - former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald J. Trump. The first one has already taken place on September 29 at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, and turned out to be the third most watched presidential debate in US history, but was still no match for the Trump vs. Clinton debate from four years ago. It was moderated by Chris Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday.” All debates air from 21:00 to 22:30 Eastern time, without commercial interruptions.

    According to the original schedule two more debates were to be held on October 15 and 22, but following the President’s hospitalisation with COVID-19, it became clear the plan would probably undergo revisions.

    A vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris was held on October 7th at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and was moderated by Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA Today.

  • 3

    The first presidential debate – the takeaway

    The September 29 face-to-face meeting between Biden and Trump turned into a 90-minute brawl  so much so, the debates commission is considering imposing some new rules, like cutting off the microphone of a candidate who interrupts the rival’s remarks. The opponents’ mutual dislike was quite tangible. While turning to matters such as the recent Supreme Court nomination, the coronavirus pandemic, the Affordable Care act, the economy, race and violence in cities, the candidates sparred with each other and the moderator, who couldn’t always stay above the fray.

    At one point, Trump pointed his criticism at Biden’s son, asking him out of the blue: “Why is it, just out of curiosity, the mayor of Moscow’s wife gave your son $3.5 million?” In return Biden slammed Trump for his downplaying the coronavirus, summing it all up with a phrase “You’re the worst president America has ever had”. Trump accused Biden of wanting to defund the police, and Biden, in turn, called Trump “the racist” in the Oval Office. While Trump was openly bullying his opponent, Biden came with quite a few retorts of his own, but this past debate will likely be remembered for Biden’s snapping “Will you shut up, man?” Reportedly, Biden’s campaign has already started selling t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase.

  • 4

    Vice presidential debate – the takeaway

    In the vice presidential debate on October 7 in Utah, coronavirus took centre stage. The face-off between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, the running mate of the Democratic nominee, was considerably more civil than the first debate-turned-brawl between Trump and Biden. It also covered more topics than last week’s showdown. However, many questions remained unanswered. Both candidates evaded the topic of potential power transfer  probably, out of respect for the two oldest presidential candidates in US history (Trump at 74 and Biden at 77), in the middle of a pandemic with one of them battling COVID-19.

    Harris was extremely critical of the present administration on matters ranging from the handling of the coronavirus crisis to losing a trade war with China, while Pence defended the President at every turn. Despite attempting to cast Trump’s administration as incompetent, Harris chose to play it safe, because, according to some experts, she is too aware of the fact that women  and especially women of colour  are judged differently than men, and therefore must walk a fine line between being assertive and avoid fitting the “angry Black woman” trope. But she could definitely afford this kind of behaviour as polls indicate that Biden/Harris ticket is currently leading by double digits nationally and is ahead in every crucial swing state.

  • 5

    What makes this year’s debate unlike any other?

    Normally, debates present a great opportunity for the candidates to go off script, show more spontaneity and appeal to the undecided voters, while adding points to their campaign.

    But given the extraordinary circumstances in which these debates are being held  a pandemic that’s led to the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression  they stir even more interest. However, it’s not the future presidents’ meetings but this year’s vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris that attracted major audiences, being arguably the most important of its kind since the VP debate tradition emerged 40 years ago. Since the virus holds more risk for older people, both Trump and Biden being in their 70’s makes the scenario of power transfer much less rhetorical than it has ever been.

    In a more typical election year, many voters know well before the elections who they plan on voting for, and debates have a limited capacity to change their minds. But in the current situation, when rallies are limited and door-to-door campaigning is all but impossible, debates may play a much more crucial role. Still, it’s worth remembering that winning a debate doesn’t guarantee success in the election, as was demonstrated four years ago by Hillary Clinton.

  • 6

    What’s next?

    Despite the illness, Trump Campaign Communications Director Tim Murtaugh initially assured CNN “It is the President’s intention to debate”. But on October 9 the bipartisan presidential debates commission decided that given Trump’s current illness and the possibility of him still being contagious at the time of the next debate, the October 15 event should be made virtual. Trump said he wouldn’t take part in a virtual debate. Later, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said they’d prefer to push the October 15 debate back a week, and then move the third debate to October 29  only days prior to the November 3 election. Biden’s campaign refused to accommodate the proposed change. Biden commented: “We set the dates. I’m sticking with the dates, I’m showing up. I’ll be there. And in fact, if he shows up, fine. If he doesn’t, fine.”

    So, instead of a debate, both candidates might schedule rallies or individual town hall-style debates in the remaining weeks. If President Trump has a speedy recovery, he might be able to return on the campaign trail and take part in the final debate scheduled for October 22.