Do Presidential Debates Matter?

October 2, 2020

This week marked a historic first when the president of the United States, Donald Trump, took part in a political debate with Democratic nominee Joe Bident. Why was it so special? Because this was the first debate in more than forty years with a small, socially-distanced live audience. The coronavirus pandemic meant that the debate couldn’t include a large crowd, which has been a standard part of past debates. But the debate was watched by millions online and on television nevertheless.

Is there a ‘winner’ in a presidential debate? Unlike in a debate contest at school, no judge is declaring a winner in a presidential debate. The debates present an opportunity for candidates to show how they think and share their beliefs with the public. The public often take part in polls right after the debate, sharing their opinions on who won. But, do presidential debates matter? To answer the question, we look at three presidential debates in history.

Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton: 2016

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
Via Wikimedia Commons: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton by Gage Skidmore 2.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0

The first female presidential candidate, Democrat Hillary Clinton, joined Republican Donald Trump for debates three times in 2016. It was another historic first, as a woman had never debated in a presidential election before, and the three debates were fierce at times. The candidates attacked and answered questions across various topics, and ultimately, public polling declared that Hillary Clinton was the winner. However, she eventually lost the presidency to Donald Trump in the elections.

John F. Kennedy versus Richard Nixon: 1960

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon
By United Press International – eBayphoto frontback, Public Domain,

The first debate that took place between the two candidates in 1960 is often dubbed the most critical debate in US history. Why? It was the first nationally televised debate where the public could see—not just hear via radio—the two candidates debate! The most interesting aspect of the debate? Those who listened on the radio believed that Nixon won the debate, while those who watched it on television thought Kennedy won. Regardless of how the candidates looked versus how they sounded, Kennedy won the election that year!

George Bush versus Bill Clinton versus Ross Perot: 1992

Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ross Perot
By George Bush Presidential Library and Museum – https://bush41library.tamu.edu/audiovisual/photos/31, Public Domain,

The 1992 debate was unusual for two reasons: it was the first time three candidates participated in a televised presidential debate. It was also the first debate in which voters were allowed to ask questions directly! After each of the three debates, a popular poll showed that the public thought Perot won the first and third debate, and that Clinton won the second debate. The presidency ultimately went to Bill Clinton.

So, do debates predict the winner of an election? Not always. But they sure show us how a candidate can talk and respond to questions, both skills that will come in handy in the future as presidents!


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