US elections

FAST FACTS: US presidential debates

Michelle Abad

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FAST FACTS: US presidential debates

2020 DEBATE. US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are reflected in the plexiglass as they participate in their second 2020 presidential campaign debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, USA, on October 22, 2020.

Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters

Debates are a permanent part of the US electoral process. History has shown that whoever is deemed the winner of the debates doesn’t necessarily win the election.

United States presidential candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden went head to head in heated exchanges in the first US election debates on Wednesday morning, September 30 (Manila time).

Analysts, journalists, and ordinary citizens called it “disastrous,” “chaotic,” and possibly the “worst debate” in history. The September 30 debate is the first of 3 this year, along with a vice presidential debate. (READ: Trump, Biden trade heated barbs in first debate)

Moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, the first debate was laden with petty lines and interruptions, despite debate rules.

Incumbent Republican President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are gunning for another term, while Democrat Biden, a former vice president, and Senator Kamala Harris challenge them.

Whoever wins the November 3 election will decide how the most hard-hit country in the coronavirus pandemic will move forward. Under Trump’s watch, more than 7 million Americans have contracted the virus, while more than 200,000 have died.

What have the debates been like historically, and are they effective in swaying the electorate? Here are some things to know:


Before the creation of the nonpartisan US Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) in 1987, the debates were not always part of the electoral process. The very first debates were between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, who discussed primarily slavery and the American Union. (They were competing for a Senate seat in 1858, and ran against each other for president in 1860.)

There were 7 Lincoln-Douglas debates, which were seen to provide the conceptual framework of the debates we would know today, according to the Bill of Rights Institute.

“These debates helped establish the precedent that candidates should present their cases and state their criticisms before the public, and engage in a constructive dialogue with each other about the future course of the nation,” said the Bill of Rights Institute.

The next debate was 90 years after that, where – over radio – Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen discussed outlawing the Communist party in the US. This was the first and last presidential debate limited to a single issue.

Debates started to become regular starting 1976. The CPD was formed to sponsor and produce the debates, and conduct research and educational activities related to them. The CPD also makes sure the debates are a permanent part of the electoral process.

Many of the debate moderators in history have been prominent broadcast journalists. PBS has supplied moderators 16 times – 12 of them by the late longtime news anchor Jim Lehrer. Bob Schieffer of CBS news moderated the 2004, 2008, and 2012 elections.

The 2016 debates between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton had a record viewership of an estimated 84 million views. Second to it was the Ronald Reagan-Jimmy Carter debates in 1980, with 80.6 million views, according to Pew Research Center.


From the debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 until 1988, the candidates answered questions from a panel of journalists. The moderator had the role of explaining and enforcing ground rules.

By the 1980s, critics said this format resembled more a press conference than a debate. In the 1990s, the CPD introduced new forms of debates, such as the town hall format.

This year, the format of the first and third debate includes 6 segments of about 15 minutes each on relevant issues such as the pandemic and economy. The moderator opens each segment with a question, and both candidates are given two minutes to respond. Then the candidates respond to each other.

The second debate will have a town hall format, featuring questions asked by members of an audience consisting of citizens from the South Florida area. 

The CPD also holds DebateWatch, its voters’ education program, to bring people together to watch the debate, turn it off at the end, and discuss what they saw and heard.

“The goal is not to say who won or lost, it is to share views with those who may agree and those who don’t. It is to listen respectfully to others’ opinions. DebateWatch is a way to incorporate a town meeting into each debate,” reads the CPD’s 2020 debate program.

This year’s DebateWatch participants include schools and civic groups representing all 50 states.

Are debates effective?

History has shown that whoever wins the debates doesn’t always necessarily win the election. In 2016’s debate between Trump and Clinton, Clinton was deemed the winner of the debates, but ultimately lost the fight for the White House.

In 2004, Democrat John Kerry also lost to George W. Bush despite polls showing the former performed better in the debate.

Two out of 3 of this year’s presidential debates are held in swing states – Ohio for the first, and Florida for the second. Swing states are battlegrounds in the US electoral college, which means results in these states are typically tight in deciding the winning candidate.

With Florida citizens asking the questions in the second debate, what the candidates say may be crucial to winning over the state.

While past debates and their succeeding media coverage have been criticized as designed to highlight conflict rather than substance, a Pew Research Center survey found that many voters say the debates aid in making up their minds on who to vote for.

Graphic from Pew Research Center

More Americans will also be voting this year by mail due to the pandemic, and so they could be casting their votes before the debate season ends. –

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a multimedia reporter at Rappler. She covers overseas Filipinos, the rights of women and children, and local governments.