US presidential debates: What to know

CNN's Tom Foreman takes a closer look at the highs and lows from past presidential debates.

Posted: Sep 29, 2020 9:49 AM
Updated: Sep 29, 2020 3:55 PM


Here's what you need to know about the presidential debates this year.

How many presidential debates will there be this year?

Three, along with a vice presidential debate.

What time are the presidential debates?

They're all at 9 p.m. ET. They'll all last approximately 90 minutes and run without commercials on networks and cable news outlets.

Where can they be seen?

The debate can be seen on WLFI.com

When and where will they occur?

  • First presidential debate -- Tuesday, September 29, at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio
  • Vice presidential debate -- Wednesday, October 7, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Second presidential debate (a town hall) -- Thursday, October 15, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami
  • Third presidential debate is Thursday, October 22, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee

Are those states significant this year?

Florida and Ohio are key battleground states this year and every recent election year. Utah and Tennessee are reliably in President Donald Trump's column, according to CNN's assessment.

See which states are battleground states and how they can add up to an Electoral College victory at our Road to 270 Electoral College Map.

Who will moderate the debates?

First presidential debate - Chris Wallace of Fox News

Vice presidential debate - Susan Page of USA Today

Second presidential debate (the town hall) - Steve Scully of C-SPAN

Third presidential debate - Kristen Welker of NBC News

What do we know about the format of the debates?

This information is taken from the Commission on Presidential Debates website, debates.org.

First presidential debate -- Six segments of approximately 15 minutes each

From debates.org: "The moderator will open each segment with a question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Candidates will then have an opportunity to respond to each other. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic."

Vice presidential debate -- Nine segments of approximately 10 minutes each

The commission's note on this debate's format is the same as the first debate, except it omits the line: "Candidates will then have an opportunity to respond to each other."

Second presidential debate -- This is a town hall featuring questions posed by members of an audience of citizens from the South Florida area

From debates.org: "The candidates will have two minutes to respond to each question and there will be an additional minute for the moderator to facilitate further discussion. The town meeting participants will be uncommitted voters selected under the supervision of Dr. Frank Newport, Senior Scientist, Gallup."

Third presidential debate -- Six segments of approximately 15 minutes each

The format will be the same as the first debate, according to debates.org.

What do we know about the topics that will be discussed?

The first moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, released a list of six general subject areas.

They are:

  1. The Trump and Biden Records
  2. The Supreme Court
  3. Covid-19
  4. The Economy
  5. Race and Violence in our Cities
  6. The Integrity of the Election

Of course, he says they're subject to change based on news developments and won't necessarily come in this order.

We'll learn more about the other debates as they draw closer.

Are there points for doing well?

A grace note or a well-delivered one liner can be very effective, too.

Palin crossed the stage to shake Joe Biden's hand and asked if she could call him Joe.

Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle he was no Jack Kennedy after Quayle tried to compare himself to JFK.

But it was Ronald Reagan, the former actor, who put on the master class.

"There you go again," he chided Jimmy Carter, shaking his head after Carter accused him of wanting to cut Medicare.

And in his closing he asked the key question of presidential campaigns when he put it to voters, "are you better off than you were four years ago?"

It was their only debate and it was a week before Election Day.

Are candidates required to debate?

Nope. And there was a move among some Democrats, like Nancy Pelosi, to get Biden to skip the debates and rob Donald Trump of an opportunity to lie and misrepresent facts on a national stage. Biden rejected the idea and promised to be a "fact checker on the floor." Conversely, Trump's campaign at one point threatened to not take part because of bias among possible moderators. But they were bluffing.

Have there always been debates?

No. The gold standard for debates were the 1858 sessions between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, although at the time they were squaring off for a Senate seat (Douglas won). They ran against each other in the presidential race in 1860 (Lincoln won).

Those debates are hard to imagine in today's media. Each man got an hour for an opening statement. Then they each got a half hour to rebut.

The first televised debates took place in 1960 and Nixon did poorly in that format, which probably helped contribute to a lack of debates in the '64, '68 and '72 election years. Last-minute and fraught negotiations preceded the debates in '76, '80 and '84, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Who organizes these debates?

The Commission on Presidential Debates has organized every general election debate since the 1988 general election. (Primary debates are a different matter and often organized by news networks working with political parties).

It's got a bipartisan board and set of co-chairs. The chairman, Frank Fahrenkopf, is a co-founder of the commission and was RNC chairman in the 1980s. Dorothy Ridings is a former president of the League of Women Voters and an executive at philanthropic organizations. Kenneth Wollack is a former president of the National Democratic Institute.

What will it look like?

Probably a lot like it always looks. The debates have used the same backgrounds since 1988. I'm dying to see if they change it this year.

Do people watch these things?

Yes. Big time. Nielsen, which tracks TV ratings, reported that 84 million people watched the September 27, 2016, debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But that number only reflected people who watched the debate on one of the 13 TV networks that broadcast it. Many more streamed the debate online or watched it in group settings (an option less available this year during the pandemic).

That Clinton/Trump debate set a new record, eclipsing the 80 million people who watched Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in their 1980 debate. It was also well above debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Americans who don't watch live will still hear about the debate from news coverage and in their social media feeds after the fact.

Do the debates affect the outcome of the election?

There's no evidence that debates lead to wide swings in public opinion. But presidential elections are decided by relatively close margins.

It's possible for a candidate to survive a bad debate performance, as Barack Obama did when he bombed (Seriously. It was bad.) against Mitt Romney in 2012.

Separately, a bad debate performance can, in hindsight be blamed for a razor-thin loss.

Al Gore was unlikeable and overly dramatic, sighing on the debate stage. He still won the popular vote and lost the election. Richard Nixon was shifty and sweating on the debate stage in 1960, so that's baked into the fact that he lost. But he lost by a historically slim margin. Donald Trump loomed weirdly behind Clinton in 2016, but that didn't cost him the election.

Further complicating things this year is that a large portion of the country is voting early -- either in person or by mail -- and will cast their votes before debate season ends.

What will be remembered from these debates?

Gaffes are often the things that stick in the public consciousness. Gerald Ford denying there was Soviet Domination in Poland in 1976 made him look completely out of touch.

George H.W. Bush checking his watch during a town hall made it look like he wanted to get out of there.

Saturday Night Live's recreation of whatever happens can eclipse the debate itself, as it did with Sarah Palin and Tina Fey in 2008 and the question over whether you can see Russia from Alaska.

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