Presidential Debates: Why They Really Matter

Joe Barbieri  ’23

Opinions Editor

To put it lightly, 2020 has been quite the year. Coronavirus, wildfires, protests against police brutality. You name it and it has happened. 

In the midst of all this chaos, it is hard to believe that the 2020 election is in 50 short days. With a matchup of President Donald Trump against former Vice President Joe Biden, this could stack up to be one of the most important elections in our nation’s history. 

With stakes so high, many Americans are eager to not only hear directly from the candidates but also to watch the candidates debate each other in an event that has been ongoing since the presidential election of 1960. 

However, if it were up to House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, this election would be an exemption. 

In a press conference on Aug. 27, Speaker Pelosi said that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden should not debate President Trump, insisting that the president would “act in a way that is beneath the dignity of the presidency.” 

While she is certainly right that President Trump has acted in ways that are inconsistent with the office of the presidency, the presidential debates are a critical factor in electing a president, as they allow voters to not only learn more about a candidate but also see how they respond to pressing questions. 

Presidential debates give voters an in-depth view of the candidates so they can see how they match up against their opponent. Without debates, voters would be limited to a campaign website and simple campaign speech. With this strategy, it would feel like one was voting simply for a name, rather than an actual person. 

Also, it is important to note that there have been many famous exchanges in past presidential debates that have greatly helped a candidate ascend to the Oval Office. 

A prime example of this was in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan faced off against Democratic challenger and former Vice President Walter Mondale. 

When asked if at 73 years old he was too old to be president, Reagan responded with a simple joke, saying that he would “not make age an issue of this campaign” and that he was “not going to exploit, for political purposes, [his] opponent’s youth and inexperience.” 

The joke not only won President Reagan the debate, but also re-election in a landslide. 

  And when examining the history of presidential debates, one will see that even the slightest mistake can have astounding effects. 

In the first televised presidential election of 1960, John F. Kennedy, a young Senator from Massachusetts, faced off against an experienced Vice President Richard Nixon. Going into the debate, Nixon was heavily regarded as the favorite. 

However, as the cameras rolled on, it was clear that Senator Kennedy had the upper hand, as he appeared confident, relaxed, and prepared while Vice President Nixon looked nervous, flustered, and at moments, it was apparent that he was sweating quite profusely. 

Those who watched the debates overwhelmingly agreed that Senator Kennedy won the debate. Carrying the momentum from this debate, Senator Kennedy defeated Vice President Nixon to become the 35th President of the United States. 

There have certainly been other mistakes that have proven costly. From President George H.W. Bush checking his watch in a debate against future president Bill Clinton to Vice President Al Gore sighing multiple times during a debate against future president George W. Bush, presidential debates are certainly more high stakes than we give them credit for. 

And that is exactly how they should be. The pressures of a sixty minute debate do not add up to the pressures that one will encounter upon assuming the presidency. And if a candidate can not prepare effectively for a presidential debate, then they are certainly not prepared to be president. 

Put simply, presidential debates can make or break a candidate’s campaign. And this election is no exception. If either candidate, whether it be President Trump or Vice President Biden, wants to ensure a win in November, they must make the most of the opportunity to debate their candidate and explain effectively why they are better than the other candidate.  

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