Presidential Debates


Presidential Debates Essay, Research Paper

Presidential Debates

Presidential debates are becoming a large part of a campaign plan. (“Where the voters are”) Who would think that such a short confrontation between the candidates would sway the vote of so many viewers? A presidential campaign could be won or lost from a single debate. The candidate must keep their cool and not go over the edge; they must be have a strong stand point on all of the topics, don’t avoid anything. When debates first started they did not have this much effect on the voters, but now that a debate can be heard over the internet and through the television voters don’t have to put forth any effort. All of the necessary points are usually covered in the debate. The points are not the only things that affect a voter, the appearance of the candidate, his tone of voice and his overall preciseness of his plans and ideas. Though the more modern debates can some what be planned, debates are still believed to be the best possible way to see the candidate in action and not just reading or saying what everyone wants to hear. The spin doctors, sponsors, television and media are playing a much larger part in presidential debates these days but all of this still shows what the importance of the debate is.

Spin Doctors

Spin doctors, isn’t that a strange name in politics and especially a presidential debate. No it is not the singing group called the Spin Doctors. In large debates a campaign will put together what they call a “spin squad”, this is a group of several spin doctors. These people are actually a very vital part of any presidential debate. All of the spin doctors today are very powerful in the government and also paid a small chunk of money for going out and preaching their parties’ candidate’s beliefs and plans. Spin doctors are the people whom are hired to perform the pre and post debate controversy among the media. The pre debate spin does not usually have any effect on the media. They are responsible for “accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative”. (Spin doctors) Which means they are trying to take anything that was good in the debate for the campaign and basically feed it to the media. They keep doing this until they believe that the point, which is good, has been gotten across to the media and the media now better understands what was actually being said. Instead of themselves putting their own opinion of what happen down they put down what the spin doctors are telling them. When eliminating the negative the spin doctors are trying to convince the media that what was actually said came out to be a miss understanding and after that they continue pounding the positive points. The place that the spin doctors work can sometimes be on the platform after the debate but is usually held in a large room. This room is complete chaos, after the debate media member’s rush to this place to be the first to interview the spin doctors. The spin doctors consider this place “Spin Alley”, and say it is a frantic dance between reporters and spin doctors as individual members of the press search for the unique angle, which no one else has covered. (Spin doctors) A bystander view said “ Spin alley is nuts! But I guess somehow this chaos helps inform the voters of what really happened in the debate.” (Marano 1996) Though the spinners are from the same party as their presidential candidate, they are never there to push for the party only the candidate. In the presidential debate of 1996 the debate went really well for Independent candidate Ross Perot, however the post debate action in spin alley really hurt him. For everyone one of Perot’s spinners the Democrats and Republicans had three to four spinners. This made it hard for the Perot’s spinners to convince the media of his excellent job and points in the debate.


The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a well-known front group for both the Democratic and Republican parties; its involvement in corporate America is more obscure. (Carlin) The Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987 to make sure that debates are a permanent part of every general election. This way the voters would be getting the best possible opinion of a candidate. Its purpose is to undertake research and educational activities relating to presidential debates. The organization is a nonprofit, nonpartisan corporation, which sponsored all of the debates in 1988, 1992, and 1996. (“Commission on Presidential Debates”) The Commission on Presidential Debates released the criteria, which a candidate must receive to be invited, and the magic number is fifteen percent. Which means that a candidate must be supported by at least fifteen percent of the voters in five national network polls. The CPD has operated over the years by collecting millions of dollars from large corporations. In return these corporate sponsors receive several gifts and benefits such as: free debate tickets, receptions, and trinkets. But the two biggest benefits that a corporation receives is the ability to have access and talk to a presidential candidates campaign. This gives the corporation the ability to talk to the campaign about them providing money and support if they in return provide sponsorship of the corporation. This is a benefit to both sides one side receives millions of dollars that are put forth in the campaign for such things as advertising and paying for spin doctors. The other side then receives nation wide recognition from a high power and would prove to be beneficial in the future. Really this is a no lose situation. The second big thing that a corporation receives for providing money to the CPD is selective exposure to the American public. Not only will the presidential campaign support the corporation the CPD will as well. There are several examples of this, in 1992 after contributing more than 250,000 thousand dollars in cash and in-kind contributions, Phillip Morris won the right to hang a large banner during the post debate interviews. (Raskin 2000) Also Anheuser-Busch, a debate sponsor in 1992 and 1996 had given more than a million dollars to the Democratic and Republican campaign parties and over 550,000 dollars to the CPD. (Raskin 2000) This earned them the right to be the sole sponsor of the presidential debate in St. Louis. Phillip Morris also gave more than three million dollars to the two parties, along with the Bank of America giving thousands of dollars. (Raskin 2000) It is believed that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) must also be receiving some kind of sponsor ship or they would have put a stop to these large contributions. As well as sponsor ship from corporations campaigns also receive money from cities who are interested in sponsoring a debate. The number of cities that wish to hold debates has increased drastically, this past year it was forty-five cities. And the average cost of a debate has not changed from 1988 to present; it is still 500,000 dollars but could easily change with the number of cities increasing and the effect off debates increase.

Televised Debates and Media

The first televised debate occurred between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, millions of Americans tuned their televisions in and watched history in the making. People do not only see the debate they also hear commentary about the debate. If you are someone who does not watch debates on the television will definitely read about them in the newspaper or magazines. Media interpretations follow a pattern. They devote little time to the content of the debates but much time to the personalities of the candidates and the process by which they make the decision to debate, prepare to debate, and spin the stories about expectations for and effects the debate. The media interpretations are usually in the frame work of a horse race, seeing the debate as a dramatic contest of real importance to the candidates, and expressing most interest in the question of who won? They rely a great deal on polls to answer this question. Presidential debates in the fall are usually fully covered by national networks and viewed by millions. Debates are specified as individual news events themselves, with much emphasis on where and when they were held. The presidential debates, like the Sate of the Union message, occupy a place on the short list of American speeches that qualify as a lead story on network television news. Televised debate effects are chiefly determined whether they produced a big change in the campaign. You can also conclude that networks set up a “must win” scenario because that was the most exciting, the most consistent with their role as entertainment medium, and would improve ratings the most. The heaviest attention of debates is on the first one; this shows that a good first impression does count. In our lazy nation today, most American citizen cast their vote on what they see on the news. It is safe to say that the media primarily control people’s opinion on political issues. Unfortunately the words most developed nation don’t have time to carefully pick their leaders in any level, especially the presidential race. While vast amounts of information is available to the American citizen to carefully pick their candidates, they chose to use what the see in the debates and what the media turns into their own opinion. There are times when the media gets carried away with information; they allow their own opinion to drive them. I have found ten points that you must consider when watching a debate: First, listen to the moderator explaining the format at the outset of the debate. Two who is the debate sponsor? Third who is on the stage and who isn’t; what criteria were used to select participating candidates. Fourth who asks the questions? Is there a single moderator or a panel? Fifth is there a live audience and, if so, who is it? Sixth is the subject matter confined to one area? Seventh what is the time limit, if any? Eighth is the unobtrusive or does it distract? Ninth at the end of the debate, before the commentators tell you what happened, write down your impressions? The tenth and final point see how the media cover the debate.

The Importance of Presidential Debates

Debates are driving news coverage of the 2000 campaign. Perhaps the biggest event of the fall campaign is the series of nationally televised presidential debates. While there is no requirement that the presidential candidates meet in debates, it is almost impossible not to participate. If a candidate wouldn’t he would be looked at blocking them for some unknown reason or they are scared of something. We seem to be having more primary-state debates than ever before. The first televised pre-New Hampshire primary debate aired in 1976, that number grew to six in 1988, the last time neither party had an incumbent running for president. In 1992 there was three Democratic debates, in 1996 there were three Republican debates and this year there is a huge increase to a total of sixteen before the New Hampshire primary, this is one example that shows how debates are increasing. Are debates becoming too much of the voters opinion? You would think so but voters seem to prefer debates to advertisements. Al Gore decided to base his whole campaign on debates he challenged Bill Bradley to a no advertisement, only debate contest. Which would mean they would compete in debates twice a week. The campaigns have the final word in debates. Although the campaign sets the terms, there are other interested parties. How meaningful a debate is depends on the public and the negotiations arrived to by the campaigns. A debate can reveal the candidates’ positions and their differences, or it can devolve into a huge televised press conference. Debates are high- stakes events. Especially to third party candidates. Voters who have not yet made up their mind can be won or lost depending on what happens in the debate. The drama of direct confrontation attracts a huge television audience. The viewing of the debate ranges from 85 to 97 million people and is increasing every year. You also need to show that you are a nationally viable candidate by getting into the debates. Debates are crucial because they keep our campaigns from being about nothing but money. No matter how much money a candidate has he can never win a debate, even if he buys the best spin doctors.


In conclusion I believe that presidential debates play a vital role in shaping the opinion of the voters. In addition, candidates can use the debates as a form to present their plans and visions for the nation. I also believe that if a candidate does not do well in a debate, then he probably won’t fair very well in the final election results. Debates have become the primary source to the voter’s opinion on a candidate.


Work Cited:

“Where the voters are.” U.S. News and World Report

September 23, 1996: 1. Infotrac. Online. Gayle Group.

April 15, 2000

Schneider, William. “And They’re Better Than Many NBA

Games.” National Journal January 15, 2000: 11. Infotrac. Online. Gayle Group. April 15, 2000

Carlin, Diana. “Presidential debates as focal points for

campaign arguments.” Political Communication December 1992: 4. Infotrac. Online. Gayle Group. April 15, 2000

“Commission on Presidential Debates” 2000. Election 2000

Debates Online. 15 April 2000.

“Vote America” 2000. The Debates. 15 April 2000.

Kenadall, Kelly. “Presidential Debates Through Media Eyes.”

American Behavioral Scientist August 1997: 5. Infotrac. Online. Gayle Group. April 15, 2000

Morano, Marc. “Manipulating the voters from inside spin

alley.” Insight on the News November 4, 1996: 1. Infotrac. Online. Gayle Group. April 15, 2000

“Spin Doctors” 1996. 15 April 2000.

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