What are the US Presidential Debates?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Richard Nixon debated John F. Kennedy on TV in 1960.
Richard Nixon debated John F. Kennedy on TV in 1960.

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.

A bipartisan organization arranges venues for presidential debates.
A bipartisan organization arranges venues for presidential debates.

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.

Debates offer a venue to express opposing views in a structured environment.
Debates offer a venue to express opposing views in a structured environment.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


Who pays for the debates to be televised on all major news stations?


@NathanG - Honestly, do people even watch these debates on television anymore? If so, what kind of an influence do they have?

I can watch Presidential debate videos online if I really want to see them, but I personally believe that most Americans have their minds made up strictly on a party line vote. I suppose the only people who really pay attention are the independents, who can swing either way.


@SkyWhisperer - Let’s give the vice presidential candidates three debates as well. Why do they only get one? Are they second tier politicians?

The last I heard, the vice president was next in the line of succession to the president. I want to understand the vice presidential candidates’ grasp of economics and foreign policy just as I do the presidential candidate’s.

Sometimes the decision to vote for one candidate or another is affected by the public’s perception of the caliber of the vice presidential candidate.

This was especially true in the 2008 election, where Sarah Palin was chosen as John McCain’s running mate. Like her or not, Palin polarized public opinion in either direction.


@miriam98 - I don’t know if we are ready for a third party yet. Most Americans are still pretty partisan along the ideological divide in my opinion.

I do believe that the Presidential election debates are as much theater as anything else. Sometimes the only thing that you remember from the debate is a witty one liner or a clever rejoinder from one of the candidates.

Does that really indicate how well they would govern? I don’t think so, but it’s the unfortunate reality of our media driven cable news cycle which is always looking for sound bites.


I think the time has come where third party candidates should be allowed to enter the presidential debates. The current presidential debate format, which pits only candidates from two of the major parties, is not fair in my opinion.

The article says the third party candidates are barred because no one sees them as “viable.” How can they be determined not to be viable before they are given a chance to speak?

The fact is third parties have been gaining more and more traction in recent years, as more Americans are dissatisfied with the performance of both Republicans and Democrats.

Some pundits think that third parties are little more than spoilers, effectively taking away votes from one party or another. But I personally believe the time has come for a third party candidate to actually win the presidency, if they are given a forum at the debates.

Post your comments
Forgot password?