Debate Watching 101

Debates can emphasize form over substance, such as the candidates’ appearance instead of their stands on the issues. You may watch a debate and still not get answers to the questions you have about the candidates and issues.

By Jeanette Senecal from the League of Women Voters

Candidate debates have a long history in American politics. At every level of government—from city council to state legislature, from Congress to President of the United States—candidates participate in debates to help voters understand who and what they stand for.

Watching debates is an important way for voters to learn more about the candidates and the issues before the election, so that they can cast an informed vote. At the same time, voters need to view debates with a careful eye to get the most information. Candidates rehearse thoroughly for debates, making it hard to get candid, spontaneous answers. Debates can emphasize form over substance, such as the candidates’ appearance instead of their stands on the issues. You may watch a debate and still not get answers to the questions you have about the candidates and issues.

You can get the most out of a debate by thinking about the issues and candidates in advance, by viewing the debate with care, and by continuing to research the issues and the candidates after the debate. Debate Watching 101 provides background information and tips to help you get the most out of watching a candidate debate.

What Is a Debate?

A debate is an event at which candidates who are running for an elected office meet face-to-face to answer questions that are asked of them. This gives the candidates a chance to state their views and to respond to their opponents’ statements. It gives viewers a chance to directly compare the candidates and their positions.

Debates usually take place in front of a live audience and may also be televised or broadcast on the radio or the Internet. A televised or broadcast debate allows many more people to watch and learn about the candidates and issues.


Debates can follow different formats, or a combination of formats. The most common formats are:

  • Single moderator: one moderator asks the questions;
  • Panel: a panel of journalists or experts questions the candidates;
  • Town hall: questions are submitted by members of the audience or randomly selected voters, in person or by phone or email. The Town Hall format allows for questions to be submitted in advance or during the debate.

The debate usually begins with an introduction of the candidates, who may also be given time to make opening statements. The heart of the debate takes place when the candidates are asked questions and they respond. There usually is a time limit for responses. The questioner may ask follow-up questions to get the candidates to explain or clarify their responses. Some debates give candidates an opportunity to “cross-examine” or ask questions directly of each other. At the end of the debate, the candidates are usually given time to make closing statements.

Before the Debate

Thinking about and preparing for the debate before it takes place will enable you to get the most from watching it. It will familiarize you with the candidates and issues. The preparation will help you focus on what to look for in the debate so that you will get the information you need in deciding who to vote for.

It will help if you take some time before the debate to:

  • Follow the campaign to learn about the candidates and their backgrounds;
  • Find out what the important campaign issues are;
  • Decide what issues are most important to you;
  • Think about the questions you may have and the information you want to get from the debate to help you in your decision making;
  • Open your mind to new opinions/impressions of the candidate regardless of party affiliation.


You may want to make plans to get together with friends or family to watch the debate. Watching the debate in a group and discussing it afterwards helps to clarify your thoughts about what was said in the debate and how the candidates performed.

A debate might not include all of the candidates for the office. Before the debate, note which candidates are included and which are not. If all candidates are not participating, try to find out why. Some debates include only candidates who have significant support, on the theory that the voters should be able to compare the candidates with a realistic chance of winning. Others invite all candidates who have qualified for the ballot. Sometimes candidates who are invited choose not to participate. Candidates with a strong lead might refuse to participate because they think there is no advantage to be gained by debating a lesser known opponent.

During the Debate

When watching the debate, ask yourself questions like these to help you judge the fairness of the debate and the performance of the candidates.

>The debate format and questions:

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  • Does the format give each candidate an equal opportunity to speak and respond to questions?
  • Are the questions clear, fair and equally tough on all candidates?
  • Do the questions cover the issues that are important to you?
  • Is the moderator in control of the debate? Does the moderator need to say less and let the candidates say more?

The candidates:

  • Do they answer questions directly, or do they evade them or fail to answer the specific question?
  • Do they give specifics about their stands on the issues, or do they speak in generalities? Do they support their positions and arguments with facts and figures?
  • Do they talk about their own policies and positions, or do they mostly attack their opponents?
  • Are their proposals realistic? Can they actually carry out the promises they are making?
  • Do they appear sincere, confident and relaxed?
  • Do they show how their backgrounds and experience qualify them to hold the office?
  • Are their answers consistent with their previous positions, and if not, do they explain why?
  • What image are they trying to create?
  • Do their responses appear overly rehearsed or “canned”?

Media coverage:

  • If you are watching the debate on television, are reaction shots or other techniques used to create a sense of drama or conflict?
  • Are you being influenced by comments made by reporters and commentators immediately before and after the debate?

After the Debate

It will help clarify your thoughts about the candidates and the issues if you take some time after the debate to reflect on what you have just seen and heard. You can do this by:

  • Comparing your impressions with others who watched the debate;
  • Asking yourself, based on the information you got from watching the debate, which candidate appears most qualified for the office;
  • Identifying the issues on which you agree with a candidate and those on which you disagree, and deciding whether that makes you more or less likely to vote for a particular candidate;
  • Asking yourself if you learned something new about the issues or the candidate;
  • Thinking about whether you have more questions about the issues or the candidates that you want to follow up;
  • Getting more information about the candidates’ positions from news reports, candidate Web sites and nonpartisan voter information Web sites such as VOTE411.org.
  • Watch later debates for more information or to confirm your current impressions of the candidates


Candidate debates give voters a chance to hear the candidates speak and respond to their opponents. They give candidates a chance to present their message directly to a wide audience. As a voter, asking yourself the right questions before, during and after the debate can help you make the most of this opportunity to learn about the candidates and the issues.


© League of Women Voters Education Fund 2006

Other Resources:

Commission on Presidential Debates

Public Agenda’s Issue Guides

Public Agenda’s First Choice 2004

LWVUS Presidential Debate Archive




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