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Presidential Debates – Making or Breaking Campaigns

With the 2020 presidential debates coming up, what can we expect to see by looking at history?

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Many voters look forward to the presidential debates every four years. But the origin of these debates is informal considering the big impact they have today on presidential campaigns.

The first official political event advertised as a debate in American politics was between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. Both were campaigning for a Senate seat in Illinois, and the two candidates agreed to hold a formal debate. After this, no major debates would occur until 1948, when Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen during the Republican primaries debated each other over the radio. Millions of Americans tuned in to listen, even though the event did not receive much recognition at the time.

In 1956, a student at the University of Maryland requested an official presidential debate between Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson to take place on campus. After seeing news of this request in the media, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt tried to convince Stevenson’s campaign manager to agree to a debate that never ended up happening. This attempt showed the interest among the American people for debates between presidential candidates.

Four years later,  John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon held a presidential debate in Chicago. Before the event, many believed that Nixon had a clear advantage due to his proficiency in radio debates and vast political experience. Instead, Nixon’s advantages were wiped out with his poor appearance during the debate.  In many instances, he was sweating, looked tense, and blended in with the grayscale background. Kennedy, on the other hand, appeared youthful and lively, confident, and contrasted his appearance with the background. After this debate, Kennedy moved ahead in the polls against Nixon, highlighting the importance that personal appearance would have on presidential elections in the future.

Modern Debate Importance

After the first TV debate, significant importance has been given to these events. Although the decision on a winner in these debates is subjective, the appearance, wit, and energy of the candidates displayed during the debate affects undecided voters. In the 2016 presidential debates, Hillary Clinton often looked flustered with the insults Donald Trump threw at her. Many spectators pointed out that Trump controlled the stage with showmanship even as Clinton remained professional and serious as expected of her.

This year has seen some disagreement who whether there should actually be any debates before the election. President Trump has already expressed his willingness to debate his opponent, Joe Biden. However, many people have told Biden not to join a debate. They argue that Trump will lie to win, or behave unprofessionally. On the other hand, Biden’s critics suggest he has problems with public speaking and that his campaign simply wants to avoid showing this on stage. Biden himself has said he is looking forward to directly facing Trump in person, however.

Are presidential debates an important part of a U.S. election?

Jose Backer, General Assignment Reporter, is a graduate of St. Michael's College and is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Political Science. Born and raised in Southern California, he currently resides in the Pasadena area.

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