Five things to listen for during a presidential debate

By Claire Jerry
Debate chairs from the 1960 election

Presidential debates first became part of the campaign landscape when John Kennedy and Richard Nixon sat across from each other in 1960. It took a few years for them to become standardized, but now debates are one of the most anticipated events of every campaign.

Are you planning to tune in? Even if you’ve already decided who you want to vote for (and in some states, you may have already cast your ballot), presidential debates provide a unique opportunity to hear directly from the candidates at the same time. Because a campaign features two to four 90-minute debates with a dozen or more questions each, there are lots of ideas and lots of impressions for viewers to sort through. Here are five things to listen for that candidates express through their prepared comments and through unscripted moments.

Wooden chairs used in the 1960 presidential debate
These chairs were used in the first debate, held in the CBS studios in 1960. Plaques on the back identify who sat in each chair for what is described as “the first face-to-face discussion between presidential candidates.”

1. Overall theme: why do they think you should vote for them?

Because individual answers are usually only one or two minutes long, candidates don’t have time to go into much detail. Rather than offering lots of specifics that listeners may not retain, candidates instead develop an overall theme that can run through their answers serving as a hook or soundbite to which they can return throughout the evening. For example, in the first debate of 1976, Jimmy Carter presented himself as a Washington outsider who could bring unity and restore “a government as good as our people.”  His answers on topics ranging from taxation to employment to privacy focused on sound leadership and its impact on individual citizens. In 2016, Donald Trump highlighted his campaign theme to “make America great again” by repeating the word “great” in his answers on trade, crime, and the economy.

Photo of Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford at the 1976 presidential debate
The podiums used in the 1976 presidential debates are part of the museum's campaign collection.

2. Leadership: what kind of president will they be?

Candidates want to demonstrate the particular strengths they will bring to the office. In 1988, Michael Dukakis wanted to project that he was strong on policy. When asked if he would favor the death penalty for someone who brutally raped his wife, rather than responding emotionally to the hypothetical example, Dukakis outlined his support for capital punishment and his policies on crime reduction. In this case, his intent to portray himself as a strong leader instead communicated to some that he would be a dispassionate and disconnected leader. His opponent, George H.W. Bush, in contrast focused on compassionate leadership with statements like “I mean it when I say I want a kinder and gentler nation.”

3. Personal traits: do they have what you think it takes?

Candidates want viewers to see how certain roles or traits would define their presidencies. They often choose traits that present a good contrast with their opponents. For example, in 2008, John McCain highlighted his past to show that “I’ve spent my entire life in the service of this nation and putting my country first,” suggesting that experience was the key presidential trait. Barack Obama, in contrast, proposed that a new perspective was needed: “We need fundamental change in this country, and that’s what I’d like to bring.”  Obama may also have been signaling youth as an essential trait. (Obama was 25 years younger than McCain).

2008 debate program
Hofstra University hosted the final debate in the 2008 contest between John McCain and Barack Obama.

4. Shared values and hopes: do they see America the way you see America?

Candidates attempt to show that they understand and share the values and hopes of the audience. In 1980, Ronald Reagan demonstrated his empathy with viewers’ frustration over the national economy by asking them “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  He later said this question may have contributed to his victory. In 1996, both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were aware that voters wanted less mudslinging and more positive dialogue. Clinton opened the first debate saying “I respect Senator Dole and his record of public service and … I will try [hard] to make this campaign and this debate one of ideas, not insults.”  Dole, recognizing he had been stereotyped as “mean” by some voters, also opted for a milder debating style than he was used to.

Clinton-Dole Debate Toy
This toy could be moved in such a way that Clinton and Dole could “jab” at each other, even if they decided not to in the debates.

5. Pivotal moments: what can you learn from what they didn’t mean to say?

While candidates usually try to follow intentional strategies, their debate performances don’t always go as they plan. Words poorly chosen and moments that go beyond can also be pivotal in how viewers see the debaters. Among the memorable misstatements is Gerald Ford’s foreign policy answer in 1976, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” still viewed as one of the most significant gaffes in debate history. Ford tried to recover by adding that the United States did not “concede” the domination of Eastern Europe but the perceived damage had been done.

Sometimes a candidate's words are contradicted by their nonverbal behavior. Asked in the 1992 town hall debate how the recession had affected him personally, George H.W. Bush looked at his watch. He later claimed he was trying to see how much time was left but some thought it communicated boredom or, worse, that he was uncaring. In 2000, Al Gore rolled his eyes and sighed deeply while his opponent was speaking. Viewers in the auditorium later said they didn’t really notice but television viewers, watching both candidates on a split-screen feed, received a message of arrogance or disrespect.

Debates and Democracy

2020 is the 18th time presidential candidates have faced off in debates. Why have they survived as one of the most anticipated moments of campaign communication?  Some of us watch looking for a clear policy statement, a revelation of character, or a memorable misstep. Some watch to cheer on our choice and some to make their choice. Perhaps some of us watch just because, in the words of two-time moderator Chris Wallace, we find the sense of “uncertainty” and “danger” combine to make “compelling television.”   

But maybe Jim Lehrer, who moderated 12 presidential debates over a quarter of a century, offered the best reason why we continue to watch debates in every election cycle: “Anytime you  get the candidates for president of the United States on the same stage, at the same time, talking about the same things, it’s good for democracy.”

Commission on Presidential Debates promotional poster, Keep It Waving debates poster
"Keep It Waving" poster from the Commission on Presidential Debates

Claire Jerry is a curator in the Division of Political and Military History, where she specializes in campaign rhetoric. She has previously written about the rhetoric of William Jennings Bryan and inaugural addresses.