The general election campaign period occurs between mid-August and early November. These elections are simpler than primaries and conventions, because there are only two major party candidates and a few minor party candidates. About 50 percent of voters will make their decisions based on party membership, so the candidates will focus on winning over independent voters and visiting states where the election is close.“Party Affiliation and Election Polls,” Pew Research Center, August 3, 2012.

Debates are an important element of the general election season, allowing voters to see candidates answer questions on policy and prior decisions. While most voters think only of presidential debates, the general election season sees many debates. In a number of states, candidates for governor are expected to participate in televised debates, as are candidates running for the U.S. Senate. Debates not only give voters a chance to hear answers, but also to see how candidates hold up under stress. Because television and the Internet make it possible to stream footage to a wide audience, modern campaign managers understand the importance of a debate (Figure).

An image of three people watching a television. On the television screen are Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
Sailors on the USS McCampbell, based out of Yokosuka, Japan, watch the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on October 4, 2012.

In 1960, the first televised presidential debate showed that answering questions well is not the only way to impress voters. Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, prepared in slightly different ways for their first of four debates. Although both studied answers to possible questions, Kennedy also worked on the delivery of his answers, including accent, tone, facial displays, and body movements, as well as overall appearance. Nixon, however, was ill in the days before the debate and appeared sweaty and gaunt. He also chose not to wear makeup, a decision that left his pale, unshaven face vulnerable.Shanto Iyengar. 2016. Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide, 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton. Interestingly, while people who watched the debate thought Kennedy won, those listening on radio saw the debate as more of a draw.

Inside the Debate

Debating an opponent in front of sixty million television voters is intimidating. Most presidential candidates spend days, if not weeks, preparing. Newspapers and cable news programs proclaim winners and losers, and debates can change the tide of a campaign. Yet, Paul Begala, a strategist with Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, saw debates differently.

In one of his columns for CNN, Begala recommends that candidates relax and have a little fun. Debates are relatively easy, he says, more like a scripted program than an interview that puts candidates on the spot. They can memorize answers and deliver them convincingly, making sure they hit their mark. Second, a candidate needs a clear message explaining why the voters should pick him or her. Is he or she a needed change? Or the only experienced candidate? If the candidate’s debate answers reinforce this message, the voters will remember. Third, candidates should be humorous, witty, and comfortable with their knowledge. Trying to be too formal or cramming information at the last minute will cause the candidate to be awkward or get overwhelmed. Finally, a candidate is always on camera. Making faces, sighing at an opponent, or simply making a mistake gives the media something to discuss and can cause a loss. In essence, Begala argues that if candidates wish to do well, preparation and confidence are key factors.Paul Begala. 1 October 2008. “Commentary: 10 Rules for Winning a Debate,” http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/10/01/begala.debate/index.html?iref=24hours.

Is Begala’s advice good? Why or why not? What positives or negatives would make a candidate’s debate performance stand out for you as a voter?

While debates are not just about a candidate’s looks, most debate rules contain language that prevents candidates from artificially enhancing their physical qualities. For example, prior rules have prohibited shoes that increase a candidate’s height, banned prosthetic devices that change a candidate’s physical appearance, and limited camera angles to prevent unflattering side and back shots. Candidates and their campaign managers are aware that visuals matter.

Debates are generally over by the end of October, just in time for Election Day. Beginning with the election of 1792, presidential elections were to be held in the thirty-four days prior to the “first Wednesday in December.”2nd Congress, Session I, “An Act relative to the Election of a President and Vice President of the United States, and Declaring the Office Who Shall Act as President in Case of Vacancies in the Offices both of President and Vice President,” Chapter 8, section 1, image 239. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html (November 1, 2015). In 1845, Congress passed legislation that moved the presidential Election Day to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and in 1872, elections for the House of Representatives were also moved to that same Tuesday.28th Congress, Session II. 23 January 1845. “An Act to Establish a Uniform Time for Holding Elections for Electors of President and Vice President in all the States of the Union,” Statute II, chapter 1, image 721. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html; 42nd Congress, Session II, “An Act for the Apportionment of Representatives to Congress among the Several Sates According to the Ninth Census.” Chapter 11, section 3, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html (November 1, 2015). The United States was then an agricultural country, and because a number of states restricted voting to property-owning males over twenty-one, farmers made up nearly 74 percent of voters.Donald Ratcliffe. 2013. “The Right to Vote and the Rise of Democracy, 1787–1828,” Journal of the Early Republic 33: 219–254; Stanley Lebergott. 1966. “Labor Force and Employment, 1800–1960,” In Output, Employment, and Productivity in the United States after 1800, ed. Dorothy S. Brady. Ann Arbor, Michigan: National Bureau of Economic Research, http://www.nber.org/books/brad66-1. The tradition of Election Day to fall in November allowed time for the lucrative fall harvest to be brought in and the farming season to end. And, while not all members of government were of the same religion, many wanted to ensure that voters were not kept from the polls by a weekend religious observance. Finally, business and mercantile concerns often closed their books on the first of the month. Rather than let accounting get in the way of voting, the bill’s language forces Election Day to fall between the second and eighth of the month.