The Presidential Debates Will Be Weirdly Educational This Year

Onstage sparring between politicians has been a part of U.S. elections for decades. Covid-19 could change that.
By Erik German

The year 2020 may have wrecked summer vacations, cancelled the Olympics and saved America from another Coachella, but this election season still promises to deliver at least one series of highly anticipated public spectacles: the presidential debates.

Three debates are scheduled between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joseph R. Biden in September and October, along with one between Vice President Mike Pence and Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris. These are weird times, though, and the debates will likely turn out to be pretty weird.

If you teach civics or history, maybe that’s good news. The differences between this year’s debates and those of the past will likely yield plenty of lessons about how debates function, where they came from and what effect they have on voters. (We even have a lesson plan to get you started, part of our education initiative Retro Report in the Classroom).

This time around, in-person audiences, a longtime staple of debates, will be minimal, to reduce the chances of spreading Covid-19. Reactions to gaffes and applause after memorable zingers will be all but absent. It’s not even clear yet whether the candidates will be positioned on the same stage.

Will these debates end up feeling like yet another glitchy Zoom call? Will they feel like this year’s telethon-esque Democratic and Republican party conventions, or like something else entirely? Will all this Covid strangeness break traditions in ways that make it hard for voters to learn about the candidates?

That’s hard to say, but I take some comfort in knowing that presidential debates have always been a little weird, in part because the tradition is so new. (High school debaters in your class may cite the famously eloquent public sparring between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858, but true forensics nerds will note that it took place during a Senate race rather than a White House bid).

Political Folklore

As I learned while co-producing the Retro Report below, the spectacle of presidential candidates facing off onstage was a creation of the television age. The first public debate between presidential candidates in a general election happened in 1960, when President Richard Nixon squared off against Senator John Kennedy. Their public clash made television history and sparked arguments about the value of image versus substance that have raged ever since.

High-stakes debates put candidates in the hot seat. But are they helpful to voters?

When it aired on Sept. 26, 1960, the Kennedy-Nixon debate was the most watched event in the history of television. It gave birth to one of the most enduring folktales about the U.S. presidency: that John Kennedy won the debate because he looked better, thus ushering in an age when TV image took precedence over substance in American politics.

“This interpretation has been repeated so many times that this particular narrative about this particular event isn’t just a story about the modern Presidency. It’s become the story,” my co-producer Hal Hansen wrote in his 2012 book, “Why Presidents Win.” “It’s become part of our cherished heritage of half-true stories we all know and tell without actually studying the facts.”

Students invited to study the facts as laid out in this Retro Report video will learn that there is little evidence to support the story. There is an anecdote about Nixon’s refusal to wear full make-up, sure, and some stories about radio listeners’ impression that Nixon won the debate. But a thorough investigation shows that the evidence is thin.

Constructive Fights

So if Kennedy’s debate performance managed to give him an edge in an election decided by fewer than 200,000 votes, what actually happened on that stage?

In his book, Hansen argued that the debate offered a real-life spectacle that gave Americans an unscripted glimpse of the candidates’ respective characters, because viewers saw them tested by conflict. Just as characterization in movies or novels requires conflict as a way of revealing character, the extreme pressure and conflict in debates can be more useful in revealing the character of the candidates than TV ads or scripted campaign speeches. “This is what happens in a debate,” Hansen wrote. “We know a little something about the candidates, but then we put them onto a stage and make them fight, and then we feel like we have a better sense of who they are.”

The debates and the circus-like atmosphere of news coverage has drawn plenty of justified criticism over the years. But some scholars of elections say the memorable moments that come out of debates and the impressions left with voters afterward all serve a substantive purpose.

“The debates give voters something that no other political mechanism does,” former Northeastern University professor Alan Schroeder told co-producer Meral Agish when she interviewed him for our story.

“Anything can happen, and history shows that there are a lot of moments along the way where the candidates were thrown off their game,” Schroeder said. “We get at least a little peek into the window of how these people operate and how they think, and how they communicate. That’s a rare and precious thing.”

Subscribe to Retro Report in the Classroom and receive free lesson plans about the U.S. elections and more. Subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.