Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Presidential Debates: What are They Good For?

Mikael Pelz


Although we are months away from the first votes being cast in the presidential nomination process, the American public has already experienced nearly twenty hours of political debates among all of the candidates vying for this office. Eleven more debates are scheduled over the next four months (for a full schedule see, holding out the prospect of many more hours of political theater. A majority of these debates will take place among Republican candidates, who still number in the teens. Even with the dominance of Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, the Democratic Party has several more debates scheduled.

Why is so much energy devoted to debates? What role do they play in our political discourse? How should voters use debates to evaluate the candidates? This article explores the evolution of political debates and discusses the current, often detrimental, conventions of modern debates. It also offers some constructive ways citizens can engage with the debates and avoid the negative trappings we’ve come to associate with debates today.

The Development of Modern Political Debates

Interestingly, the political debates we see now are a relatively recent development in our political discourse. Before 1948 and the advent of public broadcasting, debates were quite rare in political campaigns. Several important changes in our political system over the last hundred years can account for the rise in the frequency and reliance on debates in contemporary politics. Taken together, these shifts have created a debate environment far different from that of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, in which one candidate could speak extemporaneously for over an hour uninterrupted.

Before 1916, political party elites scrambled to select the standard bearer for their party in presidential elections. The nomination process took place through backroom deals between party elites, usually in smoke-filled rooms, according to the common folklore. Such imagery fueled reforms during the Progressive Era that promoted a more responsive and transparent nomination process (Edwards 2012). The most widely adopted reform was the direct primary, in which citizens of a state cast their vote for the candidate whom they want to represent the party in the general election. This reform democratized the nomination process. Rather than appealing to party elites, candidates now have to appeal directly to the people to win their party’s nomination.

How candidates reach these voters has also dramatically changed over the last century. The advent of broadcast media allowed candidates to speak to millions of voters and incentivized the practice of political debates in campaigns. For instance, the introduction of radio inspired the first primary debate between Republican presidential nominees in 1948. The popularity of television prompted not only the first general election debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, but the first televised debate. The introduction of broadcast media in campaigns has influenced many dimensions of modern debates: the spectacle, the elevated role of journalists who moderate these events, and the importance of the visual optics of seeming “presidential.”

Finally, the increasing professionalization of campaigns has had an impact on debates. The modern campaign now hires pollsters, public relations professionals, marketers, and information technology consultants (Dulio 2004; Waismel-Manor 2011). This staff uses massive amounts of data to target the candidate’s message and imagery to different groups of voters. The net effect of this professionalization has been more controlled campaigns. In contrast, debates can offer opportunities to get the candidates off their script or commit a gaffe. This dynamic may explain the “gotcha game” played in modern debates.

All of these changes have shaped the current debate environment. Increasingly, debates are ratings-driven productions with the media and the candidates attempting to have the other play the foil. Candidates use the limited time they are given in debates to rise above the other candidates and to dodge narrow or possibly biased questions from the moderators. The media hosting the debate use their allotted number of questions to heighten the conflict, drama, and newsworthiness of the event. These features make political debates more a reflection of mass society rather than an exercise of democracy.

Moreover, research on debates suggests that these events do not influence voters beyond the normal course of campaigns. For instance, in their recent book The Timeline of Presidential Elections (2012), Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien find that debates, at best, nudge voters in close elections, but otherwise do not affect the state of the race. These results mirror James Stimson’s 2004 study on the same topic. While debates may generate information (see Holbrook 1999), voters are not using this information to make important decisions at the voting booth.

How Should Voters Engage with the Debates?

How then can voters avoid getting drawn into the reality TV nature of modern political debates? We can treat debates in one of two ways. On the one hand, we can interact as spectators, viewing the debates as sporting events in which we actively cheer for or against a political faction. In this way, debates are contests in a larger political competition for power.

We are naturally wired as human beings to take this approach. The classic political science research in the 1960s revealed that partisanship was largely a product of political socialization rather than rational decision-making (Campbell, Converse, Miller and Stokes 1960). Specifically, the partisan cues that we receive during our childhood provide the powerful and largely impenetrable psychological and sociological basis of partisanship. This type of attachment explains why partisanship is largely stable throughout one’s life. Ideology and identity politics typically follow the same logic. We are oriented toward a particular political perspective, and we are not inclined to seek out opposing points of view.

The spectator approach to debates has several implications. For one, spectators emphasize strategy over substance. The goal of the debate is to represent a specific political perspective using zingers, one-liners, and catchphrases. Spectators also delight in political attacks against opponents and in the missteps of other candidates on the stage. Additionally, spectators are not likely to critically evaluate the statements of their own candidate, political party, or ideological spokesperson. They are following the dictates of these agencies rather than their own conscience. Unfortunately, these habits perpetuate many of the destructive aspects of politics.

On the other hand, an alternative approach to engaging with the debates is to analyze the political dialogue as critically engaged citizens. This orientation assumes that our voices are among many that should inform public policy and the larger common good. Therefore, it is vital to listen to and consider other perspectives and experiences in evaluating different policy proposals. Harold Heie’s online forums among the Christian community have recently modeled this approach (see Heie 2015), powerfully demonstrating that people with contrasting views can still have respectful political discussions.

These positive political interactions are important for building social capital. According to sociologist Robert Putnam (2000), social capital is the reciprocal relationships among citizens that are built over time. If a community has high levels of social capital, citizens’ mutual trust enables the community to address collective problems more easily. The problem, Putnam notes, is that people are now less involved in civic organizations and activities that generate this common trust and, as a result, social capital is diminishing in American society.

If we approach the debates as critically engaged citizens, we can see these events as occasions to learn more about all of the perspectives being represented on the stage. This curiosity about others can lead us to extend patience and charity to debate participants who are attempting to articulate a broad political vision. Taking this approach may help us look outside of our own partisanship or ideology so we can more accurately discern what policy proposals better serve the common good. More importantly, we can view debates as a time to be substantive rather than combative. Debates provide a window into many important policy questions that define the crux of the election. Indeed, modern debates offer viewers a lot of information, as candidates discuss their policy proposals and demonstrate their understanding of the problems the country faces. The difficulty is that this type of information does not often make news or draw ratings, but rather is overshadowed by the more sensational elements of the debates.

If more citizens approached debates using this model of critical engagement, the tenor of these events may actually change as voters reward candidates who emulate critically engaged citizenship. Particularly in an era of political polarization and cynicism, it is crucial for citizens to build bridges among disparate points of view. Debates can provide the opportunities to practice this more civil form of politics. In this process, debates can be an important catalyst for public conversations on what justice requires and how our political leaders are advancing this ideal.

For Further Reflection:

Consider watching the next round of debates (December 15 and 19) with a group of friends or classmates. Depending on the size of your group, assign a candidate or two to each person and have them present the substance of those candidates’ views and policies after the debate is over. Once you’ve done so, discuss these questions together:

  1. How difficult was it to fairly represent a perspective that might have been different from your own?
  2. What did you learn about the candidates or their policies that you did not know before? How might those policies uphold the common good in ways that you hadn’t considered?
  3. How does this discussion demonstrate that citizenship is not a solo exercise?

- Mikael Pelz is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College.


Campbell, Angus, Converse, Philip, Miller, Warren, and Donald Stokes. 1960. The American Voter. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Dulio, David A. 2004. For Better or Worse?: How Political Consultants are Changing Elections in the United States. Buffalo: State University of New York Press.

Edwards, Mickey. 2012. The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Erikson, Robert S. and Christopher Wlezien. 2012. The Timeline of Presidential Elections: How Campaigns do (and do not) matter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Heie, Harold. 2015. A Future for American Evangelicalism: Commitment, Openness, and Conversation. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

Holbrook, Thomas M. 1999. Political Learning from Presidential Debates. Political Behavior, 21(1): 67-89.

Putnam, Robert. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Stimson, James. A. 2004. Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Waismel-Manor, Israel. 2011. Spinning Forward; Professionalization Among Campaign Consultants. Journal of Political Marketing, 10(4): 350-371.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”