Election 2020: Guides for Watching and Discussing the Debates

Trump and BidenThere are three presidential debates scheduled for September 29, October 15, and October 22, as well as a vice presidential debate taking place on October 7. For many voters, the debates are the best chance to see the differences between the candidates as they decide how to cast their vote in November. Campaigns put a lot of effort into the debates; getting a candidate ready for these events often requires weeks of preparation.

Political debates are typically a mix of legitimate policy arguments and attempts to score points with voters through soundbites and “zingers” that can be used for campaign ads and media promotions. What this usually means for the candidates is that the style of their responses and rebuttals is just as important as the substance of what they are saying.

The Impact of Debates

Presidential debates, as we think of them today—formally agreed to by each candidate and televised for the whole country to see—began in 1960 with the debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. This event is often cited as one of the most significant debates in history, not just because it was the first but because of its perceived impact on the election.1 Prior to the debate, Nixon was leading in the polls and was regarded as the favorite, having been vice president for nearly eight years.2 However, on television, Nixon appeared uncomfortable, haggard, and awkward; Kennedy, on the other hand, was able to present himself as calm, charismatic, and confident. Although Nixon’s performance improved in the subsequent debates, Kennedy’s polling improved significantly after the first debate.3

Despite the legendary status of the first Nixon-Kennedy debate, it is difficult to say how much the debates themselves contributed to Kennedy’s ultimate victory in the 1960 election. Televised presidential and vice presidential debates were not a matter of routine until 1976, but their impacts on elections remain a source of discussion. Anticipation for the debates is often drummed up by the media and the organizations that host them, but political scientists generally agree that the impact of debates is arguable at best.4

Still, some political observers argue that although “winning” a debate may not be that important, it is very important that a candidate not be perceived as the “loser.” Between debates, media figures will often speculate, comment, and fixate on mistakes and questionable moments in debates. If the debates themselves do not change voters’ minds, the media narratives generated by the debates still can.5

Setting the Stage: Trump vs. Biden

Political observers widely agree that now-President Donald Trump “lost” all three debates with Hillary Clinton in 2016, yet he was victorious in the election.6 However, in 2016, President Trump had yet to hold any political office; therefore, he had no record to put forward or to challenge. This election cycle is different for many reasons, not the least of which is that President Trump now has a term as president under his belt, carrying all the perceived successes and failures that go with it.

Joe Biden has not held public office since January 2017, but up until that point, he had served in the federal government at different levels continuously since 1973. He is also seen as a standard-bearer for the Obama administration and can therefore expect to answer questions not only about his own policies and record but about those of President Barack Obama as well. The latest polling indicates that Biden has a six- or seven-point lead over President Trump nationally, but with only weeks to go until Election Day, the debates could affect that lead … or not.7

Discussion Questions

Teacher Note: These discussion questions are intended to be used after students view any of the 2020 debates. Below, you can also find student worksheets/guides to use before a debate, during a debate, and after a debate.

  1. What was your impression of the debate? Which candidate do you think “won” the debate? For what reasons?
  2. Were there any elements of the debate (the style of the questions, the rules for how candidates interacted, etc.) that you feel could be improved upon to make the debate more informative or helpful to voters?
  3. Which policy/policies presented by a candidate did you find most appealing? Was there an issue that was not addressed or that you feel should have been addressed more thoroughly?
  4. What impact, if any, do you think this debate will have on the election?
  5. Confirmation bias is a phenomenon in which people see the world in a way that matches what they already believe to be true. Confirmation bias helps account for why two people can see the same politician say the same thing and have two completely different impressions of that politician. Do you believe that confirmation bias plays a role in how people judge political debates? How might confirmation bias have factored into people’s perspectives of this debate?

Debate Guides

These resources will help you work with your students to deconstruct the candidates’ positions and make informed decisions about which of the candidates’ policies they favor. It is recommended (but not required) that you use all three of the guides in sequence to support students before, during, and after each debate.

1. Before the Debate

The Pre-Debate Guide asks students to describe their expectations for the debate, including the issues they want to hear about and their anticipations for each candidate’s performance. The guide also contains a number of links to previous debates, as well as reflection questions for those clips to help familiarize students with the typical style of presidential debates.

2. During the Debate

The Debate Watch Guide asks students to respond to questions as they view the debate live or in class. This guide helps students follow along and asks them to comment on their impressions and takeaways in the moment. In addition to helping students make sense of the debate, this guide can be a helpful reference for students for any in-class discussion about the debates.

3. After the Debate

The Debate Reflection Guide asks students to consider the debate and their impressions of each candidate in greater depth. Students are tasked with comparing their expectations of the debate with what actually took place, commenting on the positions they favored, and explaining the impressions of each candidate that they had at the conclusion. This guide can also be a helpful resource for students if you want to hold a discussion of the debate in class.



Featured Image Credit: Getty Images/AP
[1] https://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/kennedy-nixon-debates
[2] https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-debate-that-changed-the-world-of-politics
[3] https://www.cnn.com/2016/02/29/politics/jfk-nixon-debate/index.html
[4] https://journalistsresource.org/studies/politics/elections/presidential-debates-effects-research-roundup/
[5] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1532673X15614891?journalCode=aprb
[6] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/10/19/13340828/hillary-clinton-debate-trump-won
[7] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/us/general_election_trump_vs_biden-6247.html


Summer Round-Up #3: Protests, Police Reform, and Civil Unrest

This summer has been more dramatic and more tumultuous than any other in recent memory. To help teachers and students explore key issues from this summer, we have done a series of summer round-up articles including developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic and our review of the 2020 campaigns and conventions. In our third and final summer round-up, we examine the protests and policy responses since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May. The police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, reinvigorated the protests and demands for reform and justice.1

A Summer of Protests

Over the course of the summer, protests broke out and continued around the country. In major cities such as Portland, Oregon,2 and Louisville, Kentucky,3 protests have been daily or almost daily. The protests have ranged in their intensity and have evoked a wide array of responses from the media and public officials. Federal agents used tactics that raised alarm bells in Portland, grabbing suspected protesters from off the street in unmarked vans. Some called these actions kidnapping,4 and evidence suggests that they escalated the tension and violence in that city.5

LISTEN: From The Daily, “The Showdown in Portland”

In some cases, protests have coincided with violence and looting, frequently distracting the media and the public from the protesters’ cause.6 President Donald Trump has pointed to the violence as evidence that a greater police presence,7 and even a military presence,8 is needed. And, while polls showed that support for the Black Lives Matter movement was at an all-time high in the weeks following Floyd’s killing,9 that support has decreased as the protests have continued.10


Activists and advocates across the country are working to identify ways to keep pressure on policymakers and to keep their cause in the public eye. On August 28—the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech—the NAACP and other groups coordinated a virtual March on Washington.11 The family of Blake, the man shot by police in Kenosha, participated in that march.12 Athletes have also used their platforms to raise awareness. The NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks decided to boycott a playoff game, ultimately leading to a brief shutdown of the league.13

Summer of Reform

The protests have continued to shine a light on police practices and procedures that activists believe to be unjust. Some jurisdictions have instituted reforms. Many states and cities have banned the use of chokeholds and similar tactics. Cities and states have passed bills to make it easier to hold police officers accountable for wrongdoing.14 There are also newly instituted bans on the use of tear gas and no-knock warrants,15 the latter of which played a role in the police killing of Breonna Taylor.16

However, larger, more significant reform efforts have stalled. For example, in California, lawmakers proposed several bills that would have made police departments and records more transparent and that would have created civilian oversight commissions to investigate alleged instances of police brutality. Legislators decided not to take up those bills before the end of the session.17 Virginia legislators considered, but ultimately rejected, a bill that would have ended qualified immunity for police officers.18 Qualified immunity, established by the Supreme Court in a 1967 ruling, shields public officials from legal suits if the plaintiff is not able to establish that a clear violation of rights occurred before the case begins.19 This practice makes it difficult for people to bring cases against police officers and other civil servants. A Reuters analysis of data from qualified immunity cases found that in more than half of cases, police officers were protected from prosecution by the statute.20

At the federal level, there are several bills that have been introduced and, in some cases, passed by the House of Representatives. One such bill, the George Floyd Justice for Policing Act, passed the House in June.21 If it became law, this bill would make it easier to investigate, indict, and convict police officers for use of excessive force and would grant the Department of Justice more authority in examining patterns of abuse in police departments across the country. This bill has been introduced, but not yet debated, in the Senate.

Protesters’ most ambitious demand, the call to defund the police, remains unmet. In Minneapolis, the city council initially committed to disbanding the police department and replacing it with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention and a Department of Law Enforcement.22 However, that effort has stalled in the city council until at least 2021.23

WATCH: From The Guardian, “What Does It Mean to Defund the Police?”

Defunding or abolishing police departments would be a significant change in state and local governments. It is a new idea to most Americans. Initial polling indicated that most Americans oppose the idea, but as people have learned more about it, those opinions have seemed to be in flux.24

WATCH: From PBS NewsHour, “Two Views on the Future of American Policing”

State and local governments across the country are grappling with questions about the future of policing, criminal justice, and issues pertaining to racial justice. And, during this election, some national politicians are calling for change at the federal level. Meanwhile, people across the country are protesting, hoping to keep these issues on the public agenda.

Discussion Questions

  1. Have there been protests in or near your community? What impact have they had?
  2. Do you have a mostly positive or mostly negative view of the protests? Why? Do your reasons have to do with what you see happening, your views on the issues, or both?
  3. Which of the suggested police reforms, if any, do you agree with? Why?
  4. Do you think the federal government should take action to reform policing, or do you think those efforts are best handled at the state and local levels?
  5. Do you support the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act? Why or why not?
  6. What do you think of the call to defund the police? Explain your answer.

Possible Extension Activities

  1. Have students read the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and work together to write letters to their senators in support or in opposition.
  2. Ask students to research “defunding the police” or “abolishing the police” to understand the different ideas and policies involved in that demand. Resources embedded in this post provide good starting points, as does this overview from the Associated Press.
  3. After researching the ideas of defunding the police, ask students to design a model for providing/enforcing community safety. What would they prioritize? What agencies would they need? What would those agencies do?



Featured Image Credit: Getty Images
[1] CBS News: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/jacob-blake-sr-kenosha-wisconsin-police-shooting-victim/
[2] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/02/us/portland-protests-wednesday/index.html
[3] National Public Radio: https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/02/us/portland-protests-wednesday/index.html
4] PolitiFact: https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2020/aug/04/bob-casey/sen-bob-casey-said-federal-agents-kidnapped-protes/
[5] National Public Radio: https://www.npr.org/2020/08/06/899882025/portland-protests-de-escalate-as-federal-agents-leave-city-streets
[6] USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/08/31/riots-violence-erupting-turning-many-away-blm-and-protests-column/5675343002/
[7] Business Insider: https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-police-endorsement-speech-officers-fight-back-2020-8
[8] Council on Foreign Relations: https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/trumps-threat-use-military-against-protesters-what-know
[9] FiveThirtyEight: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/support-for-black-lives-matter-surged-during-protests-but-is-waning-among-white-americans/
[10] Boston Globe: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/09/01/opinion/support-black-lives-matter-is-dropping-among-white-americans/
[11] NAACP.org: https://www.naacp.org/marchonwashington/
[12] Chicago Tribune: https://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/evanston/ct-jacob-blake-family-kenosha-protest-plans-20200828-f6xbocfmqbdzdfhzy46z753ssq-story.html
[13] CBS Sports: https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/nba-boycott-how-players-reached-decision-to-resume-season-timeline-overnight-disagreement-owners-role/
[14] Minneapolis Star-Tribune: https://www.startribune.com/states-race-to-pass-policing-reforms-after-floyd-s-death/572051772/?refresh=true
[15] Axios: https://www.axios.com/police-reform-george-floyd-protest-2150b2dd-a6dc-4a0c-a1fb-62c2e999a03a.html
[16] USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/06/30/fact-check-police-had-no-knock-warrant-breonna-taylor-apartment/3235029001/
[17] Los Angeles Times: https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-09-02/california-police-reform-bills-derailed
[18] ABC 8 News, Richmond, Virginia: https://www.wric.com/news/politics/virginia-house-rejects-bill-eliminating-qualified-immunity-for-police/
[29] Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/qualified_immunity
[20] Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-police-immunity-scotus/
[21] Congress.gov: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/7120/actions
[22] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/06/us/minneapolis-police-abolish-delay/index.html
[23] Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-13/minneapolis-falters-in-plan-to-disband-the-police
[24] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/03/us/politics/polling-defund-the-police.html