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Study Notes

Presidential Debates

AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

The Presidential Debate is the televised debate that is usually held between the Democratic nominee and the Republican nominee for President. Very occasionally should a third candidate be polling well in opinion polls then TV Networks may add in the third party candidate as well. The TV debates are supplemented by Vice Presidential Debates.

The Presidential Debate was first broadcast in 1960 between Richard M Nixon for the Republicans and John F Kennedy for the Democrats. In an interesting twist, those who listened to the debate on the radio believed that Nixon had ‘won’ the debate, whilst those who had watched on television said that Kennedy had won the debate. This may have been down to fact that Nixon was ill on the day of the debate with the flu, and moments before the debate had hit his head on the stage light.

The debates took a break until 1976, when they reappeared for the Carter/Ford showdown. Since then they have been a staple of American politics featuring in every Presidential election since then. Presidential candidates are not constitutionally mandated to participate in the election debates, but many will choose to do so, as it has become a de facto election requirement.

The format by which the debates will take place is agreed by candidates alongside the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is a bipartisan body made up of both Democrats and Republicans. Some have criticised this arrangement, stating the it disadvantages third party candidates. There have been some attempts to transfer the control of the debates away towards a nonpartisan body, however these efforts have not come to anything.

The popularity of debates in the US has allowed them to spread to the Presidential primaries in which both Republicans and Democrats have taken part against each other. Debates have often filtered down through all political races and are present in an entire variety of races including for the House of Representatives, Senate seats, Governorships, and even town hall seats.

However, despite their presence in the US political process, many criticise the debates for simply being a forum of soundbites attempting to make the headlines rather than any form of scrutiny. This is perhaps more true for the primary debates between Presidential candidates rather than those at the top level once the parties have the nominees.

Best Moment from the Presidential Debates - CNN

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