How to watch the debates— 5 ways to get the most out of tuning in

Amy Cabrera Rasmussen, Ph.D, California State University, Long Beach

This series is also available at Guide for Politics, a public facing blog discussing current events and contemporary politics.


Traditionally, the presidential and vice -presidential debates are important events in the general election calendar.  This year, it is especially the case as the COVID-19 public health crisis has meant that other opportunities to evaluate the candidates up close—such as candidate campaigning and party conventions—were downsized.

It is also true that the vast majority of voters—including many of you reading this—have already made up their minds as to which candidate they support.

Additionally, some argue that this year’s debates are unlikely to provide any new and useful information for voters.  The candidates are all current or former officeholders, so their views and histories are part of the public record already.  Not to mention we are bombarded with information about the candidates on a daily basis!

Others may find the idea of watching to be too much.  They might find one, the other, or both candidates so boring or aggravating that they are unwilling to sit through the debates.

Finally, something incredibly dramatic or scandalous would have to occur at the debates for them to change people’s minds and shift the election markedly.

All of this being said, I will be watching, and I hope you will too.

I will watch because I think that we can learn a lot that informs us as Americans—but perhaps not the things you might expect.

Here are five things to do to help you get the most out of the debates, whatever shape they end up taking!

#1: SEE DEMOCRACY IN ACTION

In recent weeks, we have been hearing a lot about the procedures of democracy:  what free and fair elections look like, how power is meant to change hands peacefully once the results are in.  Other definitions of democracy go further to also say that in a true democracy, the public and their leaders should deliberate before making decisions.  In other words: we ought to talk, consider different views, and make arguments about what we think ought to happen as a means to persuade others before we make decisions.  Candidate debates are a stand-in for the larger “conversation” being had among the American people, such as it is.

#2:  LEARN HOW THE CANDIDATES SEE THE AMERICAN PEOPLE

The presidency and vice presidency are the only elected governmental positions that have responsibility to every person in the United States.  We are all their constituents.  Listen to what they say:  Do the candidates talk about us, the American people?  If so, how?  Do they seem to understand who we are and what our lives are like?  Do they recognize while we may all be Americans, we can have different interests and needs?  Do they mention people like you and the communities of which you consider yourself a part?

#3:  ASSESS THE CANDIDATES ON THE FULL RANGE OF PRESIDENTIAL JOB DUTIES

The presidency is a job.  A big job.  It has many responsibilities, whether set up in the constitution or having evolved over time.  These can include serving as a representative of the nation—here in the U.S. and abroad.  A president is the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military.  The president is also the most significant national political actor—largely setting the agenda for what government will do.  Presidents are expected to improve the economy.  The president also sets the tone for and fills the positions that lead the work of the federal government and nominates those who serve in the federal courts.  We might tend to focus on one or another of these roles, but the truth is that presidents do all of this and more.  So, think of the debates as a chance to see how well the person can fulfill this full range of duties, and assess the candidates accordingly.

#4:  A RARE + UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY TO SEE THE TWO CANDIDATES INTERACT

It is true that the two major party candidates are well-known to the public and one can learn almost everything they would want to know about them by reading their campaign websites or news articles.  We also already know a great deal about what they think of one another (!) from the comments they trade at press conferences and on social media.  We may doubt that we can learn anything new about them—at least anything that matters.  Yet, until the debates, we will never have seen them engage with one another directly.  While we may want to avoid being armchair psychologists, we might learn something new or have something we think we know solidified in a concrete way that matters.  We should watch:  How do they respond to being questioned directly on their views and policies?  How do they interact with one another and the moderators?  How might their behavior or demeanor shift over the course of the evening?  This can help us assess how well-suited they are to serve as president—a very powerful job.

#5:  POLICY, POLICY, POLICY

Policies are government responses to specific social problems.  As you watch, listen for any mention of issues and solutions.  Which problems are they asked about by the moderators?  Which do they bring up on their own?  What issues fail to be discussed?  More than this, listen to learn:  What do the candidates seem to see as the causes of these problems?  What role, if any, do they think that the federal government should play in responding?  Do they offer concrete actions?  Do they suggest things that seem mostly talk: might sound good but does not do much?  Do they think anything should be done at all?  Policy is where the “rubber meets the road” of politics—where we see what a candidate will do.  In the case of these two particular candidates, we also have their past policymaking record to assess:  What have they done as president in the last four years, or as vice-president or as a Senator previously?  How do they speak about these past actions, and what do they propose moving forward?

If you do these five things as you watch, you will go far beyond just deciding upon or confirming your support for a given candidate.  You will learn no matter how seriously the debates are taken by the candidates or how many fact-checks have to be done afterward!

Watch for the next post: suggestions on how to follow up your viewing of the debate to continue to learn, reflect, assess, and connect with others.  www.guideforpolitics.com.

And if you are eligible:  register and vote!

Mark your calendars for the four scheduled debates:

Tuesday September 29:
Presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio

Wednesday October 7:
Vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City, Utah

Thursday October 15:

Presidential debate in Miami, Florida

Thursday October 22:

Presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee

All will take place from 9:00-10:30 pm Eastern/6:00-7:30 pm Pacific time, and will be broadcast on television and live-streamed online.


Amy Cabrera Rasmussen is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at California State University, Long Beach, where she teaches courses on U.S. politics and public policy. Her research examines policymaking on issues such as health and the environment, and she has been a long-time participant in a local environmental coalition in her native Southern California.  She is also one of the founding directors of the APSA Institute on Civically Engaged Research. This series is also available at Guide for Politics, a public facing blog discussing current events and contemporary politics.

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