After nearly two dozen primary presidential debates, do voters want — or need — to see three general-election presidential debates, and one vice presidential debate? After all, the two major-party candidates make news daily, have websites that detail policy positions, and have surrogates making their cases via news outlets and social media. With the general election about six weeks away, what more can we learn about Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s suitability for the presidency through these debates?
Plenty — as history reveals and the ever-surprising 2016 race suggests.
Presidential debates date to 1960, and have taken place in every election since 1976. Since 1992, a town-hall meeting has taken place in every presidential campaign, and questions from the audience sometimes bring out unexpected reactions from candidates. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush seemed distant and almost critical in his response to a question about how the economic recession had affected him personally, while then-Gov. Bill Clinton demonstrated empathy, attention to detail, and an ability to connect events in his home state of Arkansas to national economic concerns.
Why, then, do the 2016 presidential debates matter, particularly the first one, which will take place at Hofstra University on Monday? The debate is important because the two major-party candidates are onstage together addressing questions on the same topics for 90 minutes, with no scheduled breaks or interruptions. The Hofstra debate will focus on national security, the economy, and the direction of the United States.
After securing their respective party’s nominations, the candidates are focused on the November election, and the debate will require them to cement party support while reaching out to independent and undecided voters.
The first debate is not without risk, because a poor performance can affect the rest of the election. However, candidates can recover from a weak first-debate performance — Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Barack Obama in 2012 are good examples. But in an election year when the candidates’ every word or action is subject to scrutiny, both Clinton and Trump face an imperative to excel.
The debates also provide an opportunity for candidates to present policy views in a setting in which they can respond in real time to each other. At the only debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980, Reagan neatly deflected the assertion he had opposed the creation of Medicare with the simple statement, “There you go again.” Reagan’s disarming response flattened Carter’s critique and became an iconic moment in debate history.
Moderator queries also can be revealing, as in 1976, when President Gerald Ford insisted — despite repeated requests for clarification from one of the panelists — that the Soviet Union did not control Eastern Europe. Ford later said he was referring to the spirit of people in countries such as Poland, but his assertion suggested limited understanding of Cold War realities.
Perhaps these examples reveal the limitations of debates: swift, amusing remarks distracting from fuller discussion of important issues; gaffes dominating news coverage at the expense of more thoughtful commentary.
Still, presidential debates permit viewers to hear and observe the major-party candidates on the same stage — what they said and how they said it.
On Monday, that will be historic.
Meena Bose is executive dean of public policy and public service programs in the Peter S. Kalikow School of Government, Public Policy and International Affairs at Hofstra University, and director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency.