Debate Watching 101

What Is A Debate?

A debate is an event at which the candidates meet face-to-face to answer questions that are asked of them. This gives the candidates a chance to state their views and to respond to their opponents’ statements. It gives viewers a chance to directly compare the candidates and their positions.

Debates usually take place in front of a live audience and may also be televised or broadcast on the radio or the Internet. A televised or broadcast debate allows many more people to watch and learn about the candidates and issues.

Debates can follow different formats, or a combination of formats. The most common formats are:

  • Single moderator: one moderator asks the questions;
  • Panel: a panel of journalists or experts question the candidates;
  • Town hall: questions are submitted by members of the audience or randomly selected voters, in person or by phone or email. The Town Hall format allows for questions to be submitted in advance or during the debate.

The debate usually begins with an introduction of the candidates, who may also be given time to make opening statements. The heart of the debate takes place when the candidates are asked questions and they respond. There usually is a time limit for responses. The questioner may ask follow-up questions to get the candidates to explain or clarify their responses. Some debates give candidates an opportunity to “cross–examine” or ask questions directly of each other. At the end of the debate, the candidates are usually given time to make closing statements.

Before The Debate

Thinking about and preparing for the debate before it takes place will enable you to get the most from watching it. It will familiarize you with the candidates and issues. The preparation will help you focus on what to look for in the debate so that you will get the information you need in deciding who to vote for.

It will help if you take some time before the debate to:

  • Follow the campaign to learn about the candidates and their backgrounds;
  • Find out what the important campaign issues are;
  • Decide what issues are most important to you;
  • Think about the questions you may have and the information you want to get from the debate to help you in your decision making;
  • Open your mind to new opinions/impressions of the candidate regardless of party affiliation.

You may want to make plans to get together with friends or family to watch the debate. Watching the debate in a group and discussing it afterwards helps to clarify your thoughts about what was said in the debate and how the candidates performed.

During The Debate

When watching the debate, ask yourself questions like these to help you judge the fairness of the debate and the performance of the candidates:

The debate format and questions:

  • Does the format give each candidate an equal opportunity to speak and respond to questions?
  • Are the questions clear, fair and equally tough on all candidates?
  • Do the questions cover the issues that are important to you?
  • Is the moderator in control of the debate? Does the moderator need to say less and let the candidates say more?

The candidates:

  • Do they answer questions directly, or do they evade them or fail to answer the specific question?
  • Do they give specifics about their stands on the issues, or do they speak in generalities?
  • Do they support their positions and arguments with facts and figures?
  • Do they talk about their own policies and positions, or do they mostly attack their opponents?
  • Are their proposals realistic? Can they actually carry out the promises they are making?
  • Do they appear sincere, confident and relaxed?
  • Do they show how their backgrounds and experience qualify them to hold the office?
  • Are their answers consistent with their previous positions, and if not, do they explain why?
  • What image are they trying to create?
  • Do their responses appear overly rehearsed or “canned”?

Media coverage:

    • If you are watching the debate on television, are reaction shots or other techniques used to create a sense of drama or conflict?
    • Are you being influenced by comments made by reporters and commentators immediately before and after the debate?

After The Debate

It will help clarify your thoughts about the candidates and the issues if you take some time after the debate to reflect on what you have just seen and heard. You can do this by:

      • Turning off the TV and avoid listening to the commentaries;
      • Comparing your impressions with others who watched the debate;
      • Asking yourself, based on the information you got from watching the debate, which candidate appears most qualified for the office;
      • Identifying the issues on which you agree with a candidate and those on which you disagree, and deciding whether that makes you more or less likely to vote for a particular candidate;
      • Asking yourself if you learned something new about the issues or the candidate;
      • Thinking about whether you have more questions about the issues or the candidates that you want to follow up on;
      • Getting more information about the candidates’ positions from news reports, candidate Web sites and nonpartisan voter information Web sites such as;
      • Watching later debates for more information or to confirm your current impressions of the candidates.

Other Resources:

League of Women Voters:

LWVUS Presidential Debate Archive:

Commission on Presidential Debates:

      Most Important Problems Facing The U.S. Today
Dissatisfaction with govt. 14%
Economy in general 12%
Unemployment/Jobs 10%
Race Relations / Racism 8%
Ethical / Moral Decline 6%
Immigration 6%
Healthcare 5%
Education 4%
Federal Budget Deficit 3%
Lack of Money 2%

Source: Gallup Poll, May 6-10, 2015

A number of other issues are important to the nation’s, and even the world’s, future, such as global warming, the aging U.S. population and the pressures that will bring on Social Security and Medicare, the American people’s low savings rate, and America’s huge and persistent trade deficit.