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Unless you're fortunate enough to live in a state with a significant number of electoral votes up for grabs, your chances of meeting a presidential candidate in person during an election campaign are exceedingly rare. Many political campaigns prefer to use mass media techniques to create ballot name recognition, rather than time-consuming and low-visibility personal appearances. The one opportunity many voters have to examine each candidate individually and learn about their positions on issues is through a televised debate. A debate strips away many of the layers between the candidate and the voters, allowing candidates to display their rhetorical and leadership skills.
One way voters can use a debate to help choose a candidate is by evaluating each candidate's responses. A panel of journalists or academic leaders are usually allowed to ask the individual candidates specific questions on important issues facing the country. If the question concerns gun control laws, for example, one candidate may state he is in favor of a complete ban on handguns. Another may say she would never pass laws that restrict private gun ownership. A third candidate might say he favors a ban on certain weapons, but not on others. From these responses, individual voters can decide which candidate's beliefs most closely match their own.
A debate can also bring out character issues not seen in commercials or public speeches. During a 1988 presidential debate, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis was asked what he would do if his wife were raped and murdered. This question was intended to provoke a passionate defense of Dukakis' stance against capital punishment. Instead, Dukakis gave an emotionless, technical answer that did not address the question directly. Many voters who watched the debate were put off by his lack of emotion. A controversial question asked during a debate may provoke an unscripted emotional response from candidates, which could demonstrate either a passion for the job or an undesirable display of emotions.
A debate may also influence a voter's opinion through the candidates' abilities to react spontaneously or maintain a sense of humor. Candidates are often coached on how to respond properly to a question or how to appear confident on camera. What they cannot anticipate is an off-the-cuff remark from other candidates. When Republican vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle compared his accomplishments as a younger senator to those of President John F. Kennedy, his Democratic opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, countered with a devastating remark. Bentsen reminded Quayle that he had worked with Kennedy personally and, in his opinion, Quayle was 'no Jack Kennedy'. Quayle's inability to respond in turn was seen by some voters as a lack of experience.
One debate may not be enough to sway every voter's opinion, but it often gives undecided voters more criteria upon which to base their vote. Some say that the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate of 1960 encouraged undecided voters to lean towards the polished Kennedy and away from a haggard-looking Nixon. Professionals who evaluated the content of the debate suggest that Nixon actually won more arguments, but viewers perceived the camera-ready Kennedy as more presidential. This televised debate prompted political candidates and their campaign directors to focus more attention on appearance and delivery, not necessarily on the accuracy of their responses.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does watching a debate inform my decision on which candidate to support?
Watching a debate provides direct insight into a candidate's policies, communication skills, and ability to handle pressure. It allows you to assess their responses to critical questions and compare their stances on issues that matter to you. According to the Pew Research Center, debates can help voters feel more informed about their choices. Observing a candidate's performance in a debate setting can also reveal their temperament and potential to lead effectively.
What should I look for in a candidate during a debate?
During a debate, it's important to look for clarity and consistency in a candidate's policy proposals, their ability to articulate a vision for the future, and how they handle criticism and opposing viewpoints. The National Communication Association suggests that non-verbal cues, such as body language and eye contact, can also be telling. Additionally, fact-checking their statements in real-time or post-debate can help you gauge their honesty and accuracy.
Can debates really change public opinion about a candidate?
Yes, debates can significantly influence public opinion. They often serve as pivotal moments in a campaign, especially when a candidate makes a memorable statement or commits a gaffe. According to a study by the American Economic Review, presidential debates have measurable effects on voters' preferences and can sway undecided voters. Debates provide a platform for candidates to potentially reshape their public image and gain momentum.
How do I differentiate between political rhetoric and substantive policy discussion in a debate?
To differentiate between rhetoric and substance, focus on whether the candidate is providing specific details about their policies, including how they plan to implement them and their potential impact. Look for evidence of a well-thought-out plan rather than vague promises. The League of Women Voters often provides guidelines on how to critically watch debates, suggesting that viewers should question the feasibility and the underlying assumptions of the candidates' proposals.
Are there any tools or resources to help me analyze a debate performance?
There are several tools and resources available to help analyze debate performances. Fact-checking websites like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com can help verify the accuracy of candidates' statements. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) offers transcripts and videos of past debates, which can be useful for reviewing performances. Additionally, many news outlets provide expert analysis and commentary that can offer different perspectives on how candidates fared.