The 2016 presidential debate season will feature Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, her Republican counterpart Donald Trump, and if he can ramp up his polling numbers beyond 15%, Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson. Unlike school or college debates, the winner of a presidential debate is not based on points. Instead, the court of public opinion will decide the winner of a debate, and the prize, aside from bragging rights, will be a few points jump in polling. A well-delivered oration has the power, to paraphrase Emerson, to persuade, convert and compel an audience.
The Qualities of a Skilled Debater
One of the most important attributes of successful politicians is their public speaking and debating skills. This fact has long been recognized from as far back as the time of the Athenians of ancient Greece. Following the emergence of the Roman Empire, the great orators from the crumbling Hellenic Greece Empire traveled to Rome and coached the nascent political elite there on the traditional art of public speaking.
One of the greatest public speakers and social theorists of the period was the great Cicero (106-43 BC), a statesman of almost unrivalled caliber. Cicero’s works, the influential De Inventione and Topics, continues to provide the basic fundamentals of the modern art of public speaking. While a few are born with the talent (we’re looking at you, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton), most politicians require years of training to develop a sufficiently high level of proficiency in inflection, gesture, pitch, vocabulary and audience rapport in a public surrounding. Interestingly, one of the greatest orators of the 20th century, Winston Churchill, was born with a lisp – but he practiced it right out of his speech!
However, unlike politicians of ancient Rome, modern politicians face a far more learned audience, in a much more sophisticated world. Issues have become more complicated, and require a more than rudimentary understanding. Politicians are also required to speak several times a day on several different subjects, for several different groups of audience, and their performances, especially during debates, are used to evaluate their ability. And you can no longer make things up – the internet has made fact-checking accessible to everyone.
Presidential Debates in the United States
The United States Presidential Debates provides an opportunity for presidential candidates to present their philosophy of governance and core values to the American public. Typically, these debates are held three times during the peak of the campaigning period. It is normally sponsored by a media agency and moderated by one of their personalities.
Public debates are a rather new phenomenon to American presidential elections. The first official public debates between presidential candidates were held on September 26, 1960, in the CBS-owned WBBM studio in Chicago, featuring Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy for the Democratic Party, and Richard M. Nixon, the sitting Vice-President for the Eisenhower administration, for the Republican Party. The debate between the two men, held over four one-hour sessions that were broadcasted live over national television and radio, saw record breaking viewership figures in excess of 70 million.
Nixon, an experienced debater from his days at Duke, was widely expected to steamroll past the young Kennedy. Nixon was indeed judged to be the winner by those listening to the radio broadcast. However, in a surprising twist, Kennedy was roundly declared the victor by television audiences. His confident, stylish and charismatic appearance contrasted sharply to Nixon’s dour and fidgety stage presence, a fact that will shape presidential debates from that moment onwards as political advisors realized the influence of a candidates’ stateliness and ‘presidential gravitas’ to the American public.
It took another 16 years before the next official presidential debate was held, this time involving the incumbent, Republican Gerald Ford, and his Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter. The debate was divided into three parts, with the first (Walnut Street Theater, Philadelphia) covering domestic policy, the second (Palace of Fine Arts Theater, San Francisco) on international policy, while the third and last one (College of William and Mary, Virginia) was an open topic session.
Carter was unanimously adjudged to be the winner after Ford fumbled under sustained pressure, most notably on the suggestion of the perceived overreaching sway exerted by Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State, on American foreign policies under the Ford administration. The debate was organized and moderated by the League of Women Voters, who was also tasked with managing the 1980 and 1984 debate.
Commission on Presidential Debates
The establishment of the non-profit and bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates in 1987, tasked with managing and streamlining all future presidential debates, was initially viewed with skepticism by some as it was co- supervised by the former chairman of the Republican and Democratic National Committees. Nonetheless, the Commission has managed every single presidential debate since 1988.
Today, the format and structure of presidential debates have been more or less settled, gleamed from years of trial and errors. But their effect on the voting public has been significantly reduced, consistent with the continuous drop in viewership which has fallen to sub-40 million figures in two of the last three election cycles (each of the 2012 debates drew over 60 million viewers). Nevertheless, presidential debates remain one of the most important tools available to the electorates in evaluating their presidential candidates. In the 2008 edition, 67% of voters who watched the three debates between President Barack Obama and Senator John McCain claimed to have been influenced by them.
In July 2016, Mr. Trump criticized the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates for the dates of the debates. Two of the debates have been planned on the same evenings which will feature live telecasts of NFL games. Mr. Trump has accused the Commission rigging the debates in favor of Secretary Clinton. The accusation prompted the Commission to release a surprising statement to defend itself:
The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) started working more than 18 months ago to identify religious and federal holidays, baseball league playoff games, NFL games, and other events in order to select the best nights for the 2016 debates. It is impossible to avoid all sporting events, and there have been nights on which debates and games occurred in most election cycles. A debate has never been rescheduled as a result.”
As a point of reference, in a four-year period, there are four general election debates (three presidential and one vice presidential), and approximately 1,000 NFL games.
The CPD selects the debate dates a year in advance in order for the television networks to have maximum lead time and predictability in scheduling these extremely important civic education forums. The CPD believes the dates for the 2016 debates will serve the American public well.