Election 2020 Classroom Activity: How Can Debates Influence an Election?

In any U.S. presidential election, one of the most highly anticipated moments is when the Democratic and Republican nominees come face to face to engage in a debate. This event gives the two nominees an opportunity to confront each other directly, challenge each other's key positions in real time, and show voters how they differ in personality, temperament, and style in the face of direct opposition and criticism.

For voters, the main task during a presidential debate is to determine whether the participants are communicating their positions and messages effectively. Here is an activity to give your students a taste of what it's like to watch a presidential debate, analyze the nominees' performances, and evaluate the effect that the debate may have on the election and its results.

This activity will require your students to watch one of the Election 2020 presidential or vice-presidential debates.

A TV Tradition

General election presidential debates date back to 1960. On September 26 of that year, then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts faced off in what was not only the first debate between presidential nominees, but also the first presidential debate to be broadcast on television. Nixon and Kennedy would participate in four televised debates during that election cycle, but the first one proved pivotal—and demonstrated the power and influence of television in its early days. Americans who listened to the debate on radio felt that Nixon had won. But those who watched it on TV and saw Nixon looking sweaty and with a five o'clock shadow—as opposed to Kennedy, who looked vital, comfortable, and clean-shaven—thought that Kennedy was the clear winner.

Vice President Richard M. Nixon (left) and Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts face off during the 1960 presidential election.

Since then, most candidates for president have recognized the importance of debates and of performing well in them—and the need to look good while doing them. This year is no exception. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will participate in three debates, scheduled for September 29, October 15, and October 22. Their respective running mates, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris of California, will face off on October 7.

As you assign the activity to your students, you may wish to convey to them that debates can have a major impact on the outcome of a presidential election. Experts say President Gerald Ford never recovered when he stated during his second debate against Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia on October 6, 1976, that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” In the presidential debate held on October 28, 1980, former Governor Ronald Reagan of California outshined then-president Carter when he told the audience, "Ask yourself: are you better off than you were four years ago?” A week later, Reagan defeated Carter at the polls. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush was criticized for seeming bored and looking at his watch during an October 15 debate with Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas and businessman Ross Perot. Some observers have said that Bush's seeming disinterest helped Clinton win the election.

For younger students, consider having them watch one of the debates and summarize the key positions and messages that each nominee presented. They could also note key words or phrases that the nominees repeated numerous times. Ask the students why they think the nominees kept repeating themselves.

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