Time to Debate

The presidential candidates are preparing for some of the biggest tests of their lives

Oct 03, 2012 | By TFK Kid Reporter Bridget Bernardo

Every TFK reader knows what it’s like to study for and take a big test. What if that test were out loud in front of more than 60 million people? What if your grade might determine whether or not you would become the President of the United States? That’s what it is like for presidential candidates to compete in debates. The candidates will participate in three presidential debates between now and the election.

President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney will first exchange ideas tonight in a debate on domestic policy, in Denver, Colorado. The second debate is on October 16, in Hempstead, New York.  The third debate will focus on foreign policy. It is scheduled to take place in October 22, in Boca Raton, Florida. Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan will meet in the one debate on October 11, in Danville, Kentucky. 

Staging the Debates

Presidential debates have become very important. They place the candidates on the same stage and give large audiences of voters an opportunity to evaluate their leadership abilities and ideas about policy during the closing weeks of the election. The debates also give the candidates the best chance to change people’s minds. Polling has shown that this election is very close and that many voters are still open to changing their minds.

Kid Reporter Bridget Bernardo interviews Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, in Providence, Rhode Island.
Kid Reporter Bridget Bernardo interviews Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, in Providence, Rhode Island.
The close race for this year’s election has some political experts predicting that the upcoming debates are the most important in years. “I think this one may be more [important] than any election,” Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. told TFK. He ought to know. For 25 years, Fahrenkopf has served as the co-chairman of The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the organization that produces the debates.

The CPD was created in 1987 to make sure that debates are part of every election and that voters receive the best information in making their choice. The CPD also conducts research and plans educational activities around the debates. “We do these debates because we want to educate people, so that when they do cast a ballot, they’re casting an educated vote,” Fahrenkopf said.

The Commission does a lot of complicated work to manage the debates. Venues and dates have to be selected. There are controversial decisions to make too, including who can participate and who will moderate the debate, which Fahrenkopf describes as the “most difficult part of [his] job.” The CPD has also tweaked the debating formats over the years, including moving to a single moderator, reducing the use of podiums and including a town-hall style debate. That’s where citizens can ask questions directly to the candidates.

Watching the Debates

This year, the first 90-minute debate has been divided into six 15-minute topics. Each candidate is given two minutes to discuss the topic. For the remaining 11 minutes, the moderator can “drill down on the candidates to make sure they answer the questions and don’t just give some answers from their political ads,” says Fahrenkopf.  “We’re hoping that this time there will be more interplay between the candidates,” he added.

Fahrenkopf thinks it’s important for TFK readers to watch the debates. He also encourages kids to get involved in the political process. “Reading about the candidates and reading what they say on those issues” is essential, says Fahrenkopf. “The important thing is to do your homework,” he says.

The importance of these upcoming debates has each candidate doing their own homework and practicing like students preparing for the biggest test of their life. In the days leading up to the first debate, President Obama is rehearsing with Massachusetts senator John Kerry, and Governor Romney has been practicing with Ohio senator Rob Portman.  They should study hard. According to Mr. Fahrenkopf, they are not allowed to bring in any help.  A pad and pencil is provided, “but otherwise they have no crutches,” he says.

Who will be our next President? No one knows yet, but whichever candidate can ace these debate tests could be the answer.

Keep up with election news at timeforkids.com/election12.