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How Much Information Do Voters Get From Presidential Debates?


(AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden answers a question as President Donald Trump listens during the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

The first presidential debate was unorthodox, to say the least.  

President Donald Trump was strongly criticized for his constant interruptions. The debate mainly consisted of both candidates talking over each other and little discussion of policy.

"I was so disappointed," said Danny Cantrell, a professor of communication and director of debate at Mount San Antonio College in Southern California, "If those had been my students we would have a long van ride home." 

While watching the first debate, Cantrell was worried his students would be learning all the things they shouldn't do during a debate.

Cantrell said last night's debate was better. There was more discussion on policy and less talking over each other. 

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"Still would have pointers, if those were my students, but I do think it was a much more substantive and helpful debate," he said.

Phil Sharp is the director of forensics and an instructor at the University of Nevada, Reno. He called the first presidential debate "troubling."

"I would hesitate to even call it a debate," he said, "The debate last night seemed a little bit better. It seemed a little bit more prepared by both candidates and there was more discussion of issues."

Both Cantrell and Sharp point out that there is a big difference between the kind of academic debates they prepare their students for and the political debates that go on during election cycles.

For one thing, candidates are often more focused on earning headlines and scoring political points than they are laying out facts and evidence-based arguments.

That motivation can explain why there are more non-verbal responses by candidates like eye rolls, head shakes and angry looks.

"A lot of these candidates are trying to get on the news or trying to get attention," Cantrell said, "I think it helped Kamala Harris to be subject of many news programs and shared on Facebook." 

Candidates also use personal attacks, which in debate is called ad hominem attacks or attacks to the person, not the subject. Cantrell said those types of attacks can be effective during elections.

"I think, again, it highlights the different nature of political debates, where we are trying to persuade audiences about the character of our opponent," he said, "As we go to the polls... I think those ad hominem attacks really stick with voters. It's something they're going to remember from the debate."

Sharp, on the other hand, believes personal attacks can potentially backfire for a candidate. 

"Some of President Trump's attacks on the Biden family can also play very poorly with a lot of people," he said.

He noted that we evaluate speakers on a number of levels, including preparedness, engagement and decorum. Those all factor into how a student is judged during an academic debate, but he believes people use those same assessments when it comes to political debates.

"I think it is even more important in a political campaign where we are deciding who we want to lead this country," he said, "Voters are going to think about those things."

One of the most effective things former Vice President Joe Biden did during last night's debate, according to Sharp, was speak to voters by looking directly into the camera. 

"Looking directly into the camera and saying highly effective things, can really persuade undecided voters," he said, "It is one of the, perhaps only, things that has been proven to move the needle on political campaigns."

Both Cantrell and Sharp believe Joe Biden won last night's debate. Although, Cantrell said President Trump did a better job with the final debate than he did during the first debate.

Philp SharpDirector of Forensics, University of Nevada, Reno; Danny Cantrell, Communications Professor and the Director of Debate, Mount San Antonio College 

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