With one of the most important elections in our lifetime in just over a month, the two candidates and their supporters have been preparing for the first presidential debate. These debates have been a cornerstone in our election process for generations. Presidential debates can be traced all the way back to the 1800s, when Lincoln and Douglas held a series of seven debates. These were very different from our modern day events, mostly because there was no moderator and instead of answering questions, the candidates would speak for an hour, then let their opponent have a rebuttal speech for thirty minutes. They were also much more necessary for voters. At this point in time, in-person debates, which potential voters were allowed to attend, were the best way for people to truly receive information about the candidates up for election. These debates defined the election and truly impacted the voting process. Even when the debates began to be televised in the 1960s, they still were the most important part of the campaigning process. According to historians, Kennedy’s overall presentation at his first debate with Nixon, led him to win the election. Voters judged not only the facts and opinions being presented but the candidates voices, postures and appearances. Kennedy was more lively and sounded better on television, leading to a rise in his polls. These debates could truly change an election. Currently, this is far from the truth. In modern days, presidential debates are arbitrary and unnecessary.
Firstly, current debates reward all negative attributes of the candidates. As seen in the 2016 debates, candidates tend to use the debates to not only bring down their opponents and belittle them, but to also brag about themselves and their achievements. Analysts judge the debates by using terms like “assertiveness,” which, in this case, boils down to how well a candidate can talk over their rivals and take control of the conversation. Some of the criteria mentioned by these analysts include who remains steadfast in their opinion and won’t back down, as well as who attempts to show strength by rattling their opponent. These once well-organized professional debates that discuss policies have now become screaming matches where egos and scandals become the forefront of our once sacred presidential campaigning process. This is very different from the peaceful discussions held over 150 years ago between Lincoln and Douglas.
In continuation, these debates are organized in a quiz, game show-esque atmosphere, where candidates are forced to answer a question in a short amount of time. This is definitely not the best way for candidates to present their platforms or show how they could help the American people. In the past, speeches presented by the candidates gave viewers a chance to see what they truly believe in while these current debates only provide a chance to touch on topics being handed to them. Also, these timed responses are not helpful when discussing important policies because they can easily hide a lack of knowledge that many of the past and current candidates have demonstrated later. Since they are given a short time to answer, they may give an incomplete response and spend the rest of their given seconds to “trash talk” their opponent in order to avoid a full answer.
Furthermore, most people have already decided who they are going to vote for long before the debates are even scheduled. Many people vote within party lines, meaning they’ll vote for whoever the candidate is from their political party. They have an undying sense of loyalty to the elephant or donkey, no matter what the candidate says. According to one poll, only 25 percent of Americans have ever voted outside their party lines. Others use the thousands of other sources of information like political polls, candidate websites and news stations to form their opinions on the candidates as early as Super Tuesday, back in March. If people have already decided who they are voting for, why does a debate need to take place? According to a Psychology Today article, debates rarely change peoples minds on their chosen candidate, and usually “reinforce existing predispositions considerably.” It also states that most voters go into a debate already supporting one candidate, which leads them to rate performances based on this confirmation bias.
A screaming match where cruel nicknames and radical opinions are exchanged for airtime is not going to inform most votes, especially if they take place this late in the campaign process. On top of all of that, many of the concepts and ideas brought up by these candidates remain unchecked or questioned until much later. This leaves viewers with inaccurate facts and falsehoods. It would be best if not only were the formats of the debates changed, such as increasing speaking time and not allowing opponents to speak over each other, but also if they took place earlier in the campaign process. In final analysis, debates need to grow with our nation or become a thing of the past, especially if we want our presidential election process to remain intact.
Nicolette Cavallaro is a sophomore majoring in integrative neuroscience.