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Breaking It Down: Exploring the history of the presidential debates

Published: Sep. 15, 2020 at 6:55 PM CDT
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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) - “They’re setting the tone and they’re setting examples for public deliberation about difficult issues that divide us, that reasonable people disagree about,” said Ron Lee, Rockford University Associate Professor of Political Science.

The upcoming presidential debates, which will lead up to Election Day 2020, are just one instance in a long line of match-ups throughout history between party candidates.

“The debates only started to really gain importance in the election cycle once we started to televise them, because, before the Nixon/Kennedy debates, there were radio debates. But, once you started to have those personalities, those politicians appear on stage, where people could see them, not just hear them, the idea was, 'Not only can I be introduced to your policies, I can be introduced to your personality,” said Matt DuPuis, Assistant Director of NIU Forensics.

Debate moderators typically look to the current issues of the day when forming their questions, like the u-s response to the Cold War in 1984, the economic slowdown of 1992 and the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2012.

“At their very, very basic level, the presidential debates are designed to let undecided voters be introduced to candidates, which is why we do it so close to the election. With November coming up, the idea is that this will give people enough time to form an opinion but not so much time that they’re going to sit on that information and forget about it,” said DuPuis.

Those who study presidential rhetoric say a candidate’s successful delivery on debate night can lead to smooth sailing on the path to the white house.

“It gives the American viewers an opportunity to see them engaged with each other and to see them fielding questions and seeing how they respond to them and what their temperament is and I think there’s a lot of thinking, ‘Can I see this person be president,’ or in the case of the current incumbent, ‘should this person be serving another four years?’” said Lee.

“They are about policy. I mean, these are two people who are arguing over the future of the country. Does their character and experience bring to that question, a sense of belief that they can do something about it? That’s what I think it really comes down to. When people look at these individuals, they have to say, 'Well, does he really care about my problem? Does even understand it, and can he do something about it,” said Ferald Bryan, PhD, NIU Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Public Communication.

While the 2020 debates may look different than years past, with no town hall audiences and single moderators due to covid-19, the purpose of the process remains the same.

“That’s why Lincoln Douglas debated. That’s why we continue to have presidential debates. It is a democracy. We the people have the right to decide and we do that by being informed, hearing our candidates debate. We go into the voting booth and make the decision,” said Dr. Bryan.

In exactly two weeks, the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is set for a nationwide broadcast on September 29.

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