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The Candidates Debate

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands.

President Barack Obama and Republican Party challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, met October 3 for first of three debates.

President Barack Obama and his Republican Party challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, met October 3 for the first of three televised policy debates in America’s 2012 presidential election campaign. The events, initiated in 1960 and held in every election but three since then, have become an institution in U.S. politics. They are also widely admired around the world for the opportunity they provide citizens here and abroad to see and hear candidates for such high office side by side.

Sponsored by a bipartisan commission, the forums aren’t debates in the formal sense of the word. The candidates aren’t given a policy position to respectively attack or defend, winning points for effectively making their case. Rather, a moderator – usually a prominent television figure – will pose a question on an agreed-upon issue area such as foreign policy or the economy, followed by brief responses by each candidate, and then more time for informal discussion of the issue before the moderator asks another question.

Nor are the events that conclusive. While debates have provided some memorable moments in U.S. presidential campaigns – Republican Gerald Ford in 1976 denying Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 giving a cool, unemotional answer to a hypothetical question about the murder of his wife – political research suggests they rarely change the opinion polls. Since 1948, no candidate leading in the polls in the weeks leading up to the debates has ever lost the popular vote. With the coming of fall and the approach of Election Day, it appears most voters have already made up their minds.

Still, the debates are major campaign events, intensely prepared for by the candidates and closely studied by the press. In an age of careful image management and saturation political advertising funded by special interests, they are the few times when the major candidates appear together side by side under conditions they do not control. Along with the Super Bowl, our country’s professional football championship game, the debates are among the most widely watched television events of the year.

Other nations have been slow to adopt this approach, providing candidates only public service time on television – often state controlled – during election campaigns. Some, though, see the advantages for both their citizens and government of seeing their prospective leaders in a focused, extended discussion of the issues facing them.