In the United States, the Presidential Debates are a series of moderated events in which the candidates for President have an opportunity to debate each other on current political issues of interest and importance. Politically-aware Americans follow the Presidential Debates closely, with some political critics suggesting that elections can be won and lost on the basis of performance at the debates. They are typically televised and broadcast on the radio, and extensive coverage is often available in the mainstream media in the days following the Presidential Debates.
Various forms of the Presidential Debates have been held in the United States since 1858. Several groups have vied for control over the debates, since they are seen as politically and culturally important. As of 1988, the Presidential Debates have been overseen by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan organization which arranges the venues, vets the questions, and picks moderators.
These debates usually take place in the two months directly preceding the Presidential Election, after the parties have nominated their candidates for the Presidency. Three debates are held for the Presidential candidates, with at least one additional debate featuring the Vice Presidential candidates. While the Presidential Debates are technically open to all Presidential candidates, usually only Democrats and Republicans are featured, since third party candidates are not viewed as viable in Presidential elections.
The first televised Presidential Debate occurred in 1960, between Nixon and Kennedy, and it was one of the most-watched television events that year. Recordings of past Presidential Debates are archived at various locations, for people who are interested in seeing historical debates.
Typically, the debates are held in public venues, such as university amphitheaters, so that members of the public can attend. The candidates may be given the questions ahead of time to prepare, or they may not know what is on the agenda until they walk on stage. In typical debate format, the candidates are each given a few minutes to respond to the question, and then to rebut their opponents.
Performance at the Presidential Debates can provides clues to how well a candidate will do as President. The candidates must be able to think on their feet, use language well, and respond spontaneously and persuasively. Since candidates are usually closely managed by their campaign staff and speechwriters, the Presidential Debates can provide the first honest look at the candidates, which is why some voters are so interested in the debates and their outcomes.