All You Need to Know about the US Presidential Debates

The 2016 presidential election is now less than 50 days away. So, the time has come for the candidates to square off – face to face – in the presidential debates!

The first of the three debates, held in Long Island, will start at 9:00 EST on Monday, September 26. NBC Anchor Lester Holt will moderate, posing questions on “America’s Direction”, “Achieving Prosperity”, and ”Securing America”. Each debate segment will begin with a question, followed by two minute answers, brief rebuttals, and a “deeper discussion on the topic”.

Such debates have become “a de facto election process” since their debut in 1960. But this year’s match-up will be far from conventional. It will be the first to feature a woman on the debate stage (Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton). It will pit “the two most unlikable presidential candidates in the history of US polling” against one another. And according to network executives, it could attract a record audience of 100 million viewers (via television and internet streaming)! That would surpass the audience of most Super Bowls, as well as the finales of M*A*S*H and Cheers.

To prepare for this epic showdown, the candidates have adopted diverging approaches. Clinton has taken 4 days off the campaign trail to engage in drills and mock debate sessions (with different Trump personas). She has studied a “thick dossier on Mr. Trump” based on “months of research and meetings”. Trump, on the other hand, has “largely shun[ned] traditional debate preparations”, believing that “debates are not won or lost on policy minutiae“.

So which candidate will win? Will the debate even have an impact? Political scientists maintain that “presidential debates rarely have a huge effect on the outcome of the election”. After all, most Americans watch the event “to confirm what we already think we know” and ultimately “return to their ideological silos, absorbing instant analysis from left-leaning anchors on MSNBC or commentators at right-leaning outlets like Breitbart News”. There can be an effect on voters who are weakly partisan or undecided, but it is typically minor.

Additionally, any observed effects “are often caused by factors wholly beyond the candidates’ control”. These factors include media coverage, reactions on social networks, and candidate appearance. As proof, experts point to the famous Kennedy vs. Nixon debate, in which Nixon looked “pale and clammy” as he battled illness. They also cite the 2008 debate, in which 72-year old McCain saw his support decline after appearing in high-definition.

Of course, in the end, the voters will decide! So be sure to tune into the first presidential debate on September 26. Additional debates will follow on October 9 in St. Louis and October 19 in Las Vegas.

To learn more about the 2016 election, please contact Rock the Vote, the Center for Civic Education, or our partner, the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.