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The Debates

The Presidential Debate series looms on the political horizon, and controversy is beginning to swirl even though the first forum is still a month away.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week that Democratic nominee Joe Biden shouldn’t debate President Donald Trump. “I wouldn’t legitimize a conversation with him, nor a debate in terms of the presidency of the United States,” she was quoted as saying at a news conference. At the end of July, former Bill Clinton news secretary Joe Lockhart wrote for CNN.com that Mr. Biden shouldn’t debate the President. “Whatever you do, don’t debate Trump. Trump has now made more than 20,000 misleading or false statements according to the Washington Post,” Mr. Lockhart penned as public advice to Mr. Biden.

Some on the Republican side argue that these Democratic leaders are beginning to lay the groundwork for Biden to avoid the debates because of concerns their candidate would fare poorly opposite President Trump. 

For his part, Mr. Biden says he will debate the President, and become his own “fact checker on the floor.” He will also begin holding campaign events after Labor Day. In an August 28 interview with the Associated Press, Mr. Biden said he’ll “meet people where it matters - not at irresponsible rallies or staged for TV to boost egos, but real people's communities, in real local businesses, in their lives.” Mr. Biden further said he’ll “hold events consistent with the state rules about crowd sizes and other regulations.”

The first debate is scheduled for Tuesday, September 29, the second on Thursday, October 15, and the final forum culminates a week later on October 22. The Vice-Presidential debate between incumbent Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is scheduled for Wednesday, October 7. 

The debates have proven important in the past and always draw large audiences. According to the Pew Research Center, even the first televised debate, between then-Sen. John F. Kennedy and then-Vice President Richard Nixon, drew over 66 million viewers usually on black and white televisions, at a time when the US population was just under 181 million people, or approximately 55% of today’s total populace. The 1960 figure meant that at least 36% of the American people watched the Kennedy-Nixon first debate, which is equivalent to more than 118 million today.

The highest raw number viewership, again according to the Pew Research Center, was the Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump first debate in 2016. Closely behind was the 1980 lone President Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan debate that drew 80.6 million viewers. With the smaller population 40 years ago, this latter number represented 36% of the stated population, akin to what the Kennedy-Nixon debate drew. Even though the Clinton-Trump forum had a higher aggregate viewership, their 84 million viewers represented 26% of the total American population.

The Vice-Presidential debates typically fall well behind the presidential forums in viewership. The only exception was in 2008, when the Joe Biden-Sarah Palin debate actually outdrew all of the Obama-McCain presidential appearances. The Biden-Palin single-night event recorded just under 70 million people, while the top figure for any Barack Obama-John McCain forum was 63.2 million people. The lowest viewed presidential debate came in 1996 when only 36.3 million watched the final Bill Clinton-Bob Dole joint appearance.

According to the Pew Research post-election polling series for presidential elections beginning in 1988, the overwhelming number of respondents from their sampling universes said they believe the debates are either somewhat or very helpful in assisting with vote determination. In 2016, 63% of poll participants said that the debates were very or somewhat helpful to them, versus 36% who felt the debate series was “not too helpful” or “not at all helpful.” Those types of ratios have been consistent since 2008.

Significant numbers of previously uncommitted viewers also say they decide how to vote after viewing the debate series. The high number came in 2000, when 17% of undecided voters said they made up their minds once the debates concluded. In the last two presidential elections (2012; 2016), 10% of the undecideds made similar replies.

There is no question that the presidential debates have a serious impact on the individual campaigns. It remains to be seen just how they might alter this year’s outcome.