Presidential Debates: Not a Spectator Sport

The nonpartisan, nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was established in 1987 to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners. The CPD’s primary purpose is to sponsor and produce debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates and to undertake research and educational activities relating to the debates. With funding provided by a grant from the Knight Foundation, the CPD is publishing a guide to the production and sponsorship of debates, Inside Debates, as well as a curriculum for middle and high school, Presidential Debates: A Teacher’s Guide. The curriculum, designed in collaboration with KidsVoting USA, contains a brief history of presidential debates, as well as activities which help students understand the process of debating. The goal of these activities is to get students and their families involved in the discussion of public issues during the general election.

Two activities from the curriculum appear on the following three pages. “It’s Your Turn to Be a Political Reporter” is an activity that asks students to review presidential debate questions as asked by news reporters in past years, and then to compose their own questions for the current debate. “The Techniques of Persuasion” asks students to learn about ten rhetorical techniques (like “appeal to emotion” and “false dilemma”) and then to listen carefully to the words of the candidates during the debate, noting any use of these techniques. (See also the activity “Debate Bingo” on page 299.)

Both guidebooks will be available free on the CPD website,, and on the Kids Voting USA website, A visitor to the CPD website can find these guidebooks by clicking on the Educational Resources link. One can also read about presidential debates of the past by clicking on the button (literally, the image of an old campaign button) for the appropriate year. The debates of 1858 set the stage for Abraham Lincoln’s later run for the presidency; 1948 and 1956 were the only public debates among presidential candidates prior to 1960, the year of the first televised presidential debate (between Kennedy and Nixon). There were no presidential debates between 1960 and 1976, but in 1976—and for every presidential election since—there has been a televised debate between the major candidates for president. At the CPD website, one can also suggest topics for the 2000 presidential debates by completing an online survey. The public’s suggested topics will be forwarded to the official moderator well before the debates begin.

The CPD’s staff conducts research to improve the quality of debates. The CPD is currently compiling an oral history of debates as recalled by presidential debate participants. Furthermore, the CPD provides technical assistance to emerging democracies and others interested in establishing debate traditions in their countries. In the last four years, the staff worked with groups from Brazil, South Africa, Taiwan, Russia, Ukraine, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Japan, and Namibia, among others. Finally, the CPD coordinates post-debate symposia and research after each of its presidential forums.

The activities in Presidential Debates: A Teacher’s Guide challenge students to view the debates as more than just a passive broadcast, like a talk show or a news hour. The debates (three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate this October) provide an opportunity for critical thinking, careful listening, and active participation. Janet H. Brown, CPD executive director, states, “We hope teachers find our materials helpful in teaching young people about the role debates play in the American political process. We are grateful to NCSS for its interest in our work, and we welcome inquiries and comments from its members.”


For more information regarding the commission, please contact: Commission on Presidential Debates, 1200 New Hampshire Avenue, N.W., Box 445, Washington, DC 20036; (202) 872-1020 (phone); (website); (e-mail).