High-stakes debates put candidates in the hot seat. But are they helpful to voters?
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Political Debates: What the Unforgettable Moments Reveal

Associate Producer: Victor Couto
Additional Editor: Heru Muharrar

Tell-all moments in political debates are embedded in political folklore, from knockout one-liners to astonishing gaffes. High-stakes debates put candidates in the hot seat. But are they helpful to voters?

The first presidential debate in 1960 was a creation of the television age, and it quickly entered its founding lore. We’re told those who saw the debate on TV favored the handsome, well made-up Kennedy. Radio listeners, on the other hand, thought Nixon had won. Evidence supporting this story is shoddy — a mix of anecdote, assumptions and a debunked survey – but the story continues to shape how we understand debates today.

Many historians say there is a misplaced focus on the ability of make-up – or other non-substantive aspects of performance – to deliver political victory, when debates have become one of our most important civic rituals, allowing glimpses into candidate’s character that comes from them defending their ideas in an unscripted, high-stakes environment. But what impact has the changing media landscape had on debates? And what does that mean for this election?

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More on the Story

The Myth of Presidential Debates The Takeaway
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Difficult Questions: How Much the Clinton-Trump Debates Matter The New York Times
Presidential Debates Aren’t About Style or Substance. They’re About Pressure The Washingtonian