The debate about debates: Why do they matter?

While this year’s debates were atypical, the lessons you can learn from a strong debate don’t change.

Tori Johnsson

This year’s presidential debates have been exciting, sometimes infuriating and always unconventional.

Debates can be a powerful tool for choosing a candidate you agree with and respect, or they can be messy, petulant catfights. With such a pivotal presidential election, it’s necessary to remember why debates are so important and why this year’s were so strange.

The first presidential debate on Sept. 29 was more of a kindergarten brawl than a rational discussion. The few parts of it I saw live made me cringe. The reason I can’t provide a full review of this debate is that I gave up and left the room.

Based on what I did see, the first debate was disappointing and concerning. Debate rules devolved into mere guidelines as both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden trampled over them. Both candidates, but especially Trump, preferred to take cheap shots at their opponent’s character rather than discuss policy.

The Oct. 7 vice presidential debate was relatively civil and more comfortable to watch. Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris gave eloquent answers and engaged in something that resembled a traditional debate.

Pence talked over Harris frequently, but she stood up for herself. Vice versa, Pence pointed out when he felt Harris stepped out of line. Both potential vice presidents made their cases with strong policy ideas.

Trump’s strong dislike of a virtual debate format forced the cancellation of the second presidential debate after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 1 and was unable to meet in person. I’m sure many people could have benefited from a presidential debate that was less of a mud-slinging fiasco than the first. Trump chose to participate in a town hall instead.

Conflicts over debate timing between both candidates and their respective campaign managers left everyone in the lurch. Trump held a town hall on NBC News, Biden held his on ABC News, and they both kicked off at 8 p.m. on Oct. 15. Double-booking town halls on different news channels forced people to channel-swap. It almost guaranteed that watchers would miss information from one event or the other.

Finally, the third presidential debate on Oct. 22 was much closer to the ideal of a robust but not raucous discussion. Both Biden and Trump brought up relatively coherent and engaging policy proposals. Biden in particular had better responses to how he’d combat racism, fix healthcare and tackle climate change.

Trump took some decent shots at Biden’s inactivity while vice president and his foreign policy attitudes. The candidates battered each other over perceived ties to foreign countries — but, as usual, there was no clear winner.

Trump’s style was more memorable, but Biden’s policy proposals were stronger.

Moderator Kristen Welker did a superb job of keeping the debate on track. Her questions were incisive and tough, yet fair. She stuck to the program and the time limits, and she didn’t tolerate disrespect from either candidate. But she still endured being talked over frequently and loudly, especially by Trump.

There weren’t really surprises or knockout moments in the third debate. Trump said he was the least racist person in the room, which came off as conceited and callous. He did avoid implicitly endorsing yet another conspiracy theory or white supremacist faction.

But, then again, it should be easy for someone to just… not endorse dangerous fringe groups like the Proud Boys or QAnon, like Trump did in the last two debates!

Trump also had no convincing answers about children who crossed the border illegally and were separated from their families.

Some debates may be disasters, but I feel that the basic concept of presidential debates will be valuable for a long time. Debates are some- times chaotic, but they can capture the attention of a nation. With a little analysis, they deliver important truths about the candidates that you can’t find anywhere else.

Debates are irreplaceable because:

1. They take the situation out of one candidate’s control – anything can happen. When candidates don’t get questions ahead of time, it allows audiences to see which candidates can think on their feet. The moderator could pitch anyone a curveball and destroy their momentum. Candidates make their case to the people of the United States on the campaign trail, but every rally and interview is a controlled environment. Putting the candidates in direct debate allows audiences to compare and contrast their visions.

2. Moderators serve as an unpredictable factor

for candidates to work with on the debate stage. Moderators can let candidates roll on, as Fox News’s Chris Wallace mostly did in the first presidential debate. They can also call candidates out on perceived illogical arguments, as Savannah Guthrie from NBC News did in the town hall, when Trump downplayed retweeting a conspiracy video that accused Biden of plotting to have Seal Team Six killed. Moderators have a lot of room to challenge candidates and enforce debate rules — if they choose to do so.

3. Debates show us how potential elected officials will work with people they disagree with. On the debate stage, the core of someone’s approach to conflict can’t be hidden. If you like what you see on stage, it gives voters more confidence in that candidate’s ability to handle foreign and domestic policy. It’s all about the candidate’s recovery and adaptability — some of the important skills you’ll want them to have if they take office.

In a normal election year, debates help voters choose a candidate for the country’s best interests. In 2020, millions more people have voted early, which is actually disappointing from a debate-loving standpoint. People sent in their ballots before they could see the third presidential debate, which was the only event that really pitted the candidates against each other in traditional style.

While this year’s debates were atypical, the lessons you can learn from a strong debate don’t change.