Presidential debates: Explaining them to kids


(Illustration by Andy Ward)
September 27, 2012

What are President Barack Obama and his election opponent, Mitt Romney, doing today? They probably are studying for one of the biggest tests of their lives: the debates between the two candidates for president.

Debates — where people running for office are asked a lot of tough questions — have a long tradition in elections. Obama, a Democrat, and Romney, a Republican, will each try to make the case that he is the best candidate to be elected president on November 6.

Think of it as being like when you and your mother disagree about eating your peas. Each of you tries to make an argument that supports your position and persuades the other person to see it your way. But the candidates won’t be discussing vegetables. Instead, they will be asked about a lot of important issues, including the environment (science), the economy (math) and world governments (social studies). And all of this will happen on live television!

How do you win?

There is no easy trick to winning a debate of this kind. Debates have rules that both candidates agree on. For example, a moderator, who is kind of like a referee, will ask questions and Obama and Romney will only have a minute or two to respond.

On top of all of this, the millions of voters watching the debate are the judges. Once the debates are over, they can decide which candidate is better and vote for that person on Election Day. In that way, watching a debate can be like watching “American Idol.”


Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, debates a point with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum during a Republican presidential debate in February. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Many people listen to the way the candidates answer the questions to see whether they agree with them. But voters also react to how each candidate makes them feel. People vote for a lot of reasons. And it has been said that when Americans choose a president, they are picking the person they would most like to have in their homes (via television) for the next four years.

To win, Romney and Obama have to give smart answers and also get voters to like them as people.

Debate disasters

In a debate, neither candidate wants to make a big mistake. In a 1976 debate, Gerald Ford, who was president at that time, said that the Soviet Union, then one of the most powerful countries in the world, was not bullying the countries near it. Most experts disagreed with Ford, and some people think he lost the election because of that one statement.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter, who was trying to win a second term as president, said that he had talked to his 13-year-old daughter about the biggest problems in the world. “I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was,” Carter said. “She said she thought nuclear weaponry, and the control of nuclear arms.” Many people weren’t comfortable with the idea of a president getting advice from his teenage daughter — even if she was right.

People who follow politics think one of the best debaters was Ronald Reagan, who often found ways to turn negative questions into jokes. When asked in a 1984 debate whether, at age 73, he was too old to be president, Reagan replied: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even his opponent, former vice president Walter Mondale, who was 56 at the time, laughed. Reagan won the election easily.

Historic debates

Debates can be important historically. You will learn about them in social studies. For example, the Lincoln-Douglas debates refer to the debates between Abraham Lincoln and his opponent, Stephen Douglas, when both were running in Illinois for the U.S. Senate in 1858. In those debates, Lincoln argued that slavery was wrong. (You might find this interesting: Lincoln lost the Senate election, but he was elected president in 1860.)

Obama and Romney will have the second of three debates Tuesday at 9 p.m. The two candidates for vice president (Democrat Joe Biden, who is currently the vice president, and Paul Ryan, a Republican congressman) debated last week.


In this Oct. 28, 1980 file photo, President Jimmy Carter, left, and Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, shake hands in Cleveland, Ohio, before debating before a nationwide television audience. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

You may want to ask your parents to stay up late to watch at least one of the debates. Who knows? In the future, other kids may be reading about these debates in their history books.

MEET President Obama

MEET Mitt Romney

QUIZ: Could you be president?

READ: More places to learn about elections

TO DO: Tips for having your own debate

— Krissah Thompson

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