Communication Televised Debates
William L. Benoit
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0052


Televised debates are an extremely important election campaign medium for several reasons. Many voters watch debates; they also learn about debates from news and/or from discussions with other voters. Furthermore, televised campaign debates are becoming more common over time. Every American general election presidential campaign since 1976 has featured at least one debate (the first American general election debate occurred in 1960, when Nixon and Kennedy squared off). Recent years have seen dozens of US presidential primary debates (the first presidential primary debate was broadcast on radio in 1948). Debates for other elected offices—US senate or congress, governor, and mayor—are becoming more common. Other countries, including Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Iran, Italy, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, and Ukraine, have also held debates among political leaders in recent years. Debates are important because they allow voters to directly compare leading candidates, and the face-to-face confrontation of debates can generate a direct clash of ideas, helping voters learn more. Although candidates prepare for debates, candidates usually are not allowed to bring prepared notes to the debate. This can mean that unexpected questions or comments from an opponent may provoke more candid answers than found in heavily scripted spots or speeches. Debates provide extended exposure to candidates. Debates are longer than most other campaign messages (usually one to two hours long), and some campaigns feature more than one debate. Finally, televised debates have substantial effects on viewers, as elaborated below. It should be noted that debates usually feature a question and answer format, with candidates alternating answers to each. Some debates permit candidates to make opening statements and/or closing remarks not prompted by questions. Without question, debates merit scholarly attention.

General Overviews

Kraus 1977 (reissued from the 1962 original) is first book on televised debates, covering the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates. (Sidney Kraus edited another volume on the 1976 Carter-Ford debates.) Bitzer and Rueter 1980 covers the 1976 debates. Jamieson and Birdsell 1988 and McKinney and Carlin 2004 offer useful overviews of the field. Carlin, et al. 2009 integrates the research comprising the DebateWatch program of research. Minow and LeMay 2008 provides an insider’s view of American presidential debates. Coleman 2000 presents international perspectives on televised debates. Benoit 2014 reviews theory and research on political leaders’ debates. These and other works provide a helpful introduction to this area of inquiry. The Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan organization that sponsors American general election debates, has a useful webpage.

  • Benoit, W. L. 2014. Political election debates: Informing voters about policy and character. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

    Benoit discusses American presidential debates through 2012, examining the incumbency and campaign phase. Benoit addresses senate, gubernatorial, and mayoral debates in the United States as well as political leaders’ debates in other countries. He also examines the relationship between debate discourse and coverage of those events in the news (American presidential, senate, and gubernatorial news coverage and news on debates in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom).

  • Bitzer, Lloyd, and Theodore Rueter. 1980. Carter versus Ford: The counterfeit debates of 1976. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    This book begins with an investigation of the context of the 1976 debates and the questions asked of the candidates. Then it examines issues addressed, strategies, and argumentation of Carter and Ford.

  • Carlin, Diana B., Kelly M. McDonald, Tammy Vigil, and Susan Buehler. 2009. The third agenda in U.S. presidential debates: DebateWatch and viewer reactions, 1996–2004. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has sponsored the American general election debates, starting in 1988. In 1996, the CPD initiated the DebateWatch program to help understand the audience for televised debates. This book integrates the findings of three years of this activity, reporting data from focus groups, surveys, and other sources on debate viewers.

  • Coleman, Stephen, ed. 2000. Televised election debates: International perspectives. New York: St. Martin’s.

    Coleman’s volume includes chapters on debates generally (an overview, a chapter on voter learning, third parties, producing debates, and watching debates) and on particular countries (Australia, Israel, New Zealand, and Great Britain) that at that time had not held televised debates.

  • Commission on Presidential Debates.

    This webpage concerns American presidential debates from the general phase of the election. It includes background on debates, transcripts of debates, and data on viewership of debates.

  • Jamieson, Kathleen H., and David S. Birdsell. 1988. Presidential debates: The challenge of creating an informed electorate. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The authors examine political debate before the advent of televised election debates, the importance of broadcasting to political debates, the power of debates, the problems with debates, and the potential of debates.

  • Kraus, Sidney, ed. 1977. The great debates: Kennedy vs. Nixon, 1960. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    A reissue of the 1962 original, this book collects eighteen essays on the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates, the first general election debates in America. In addition to printing the texts of the four debates, the book contains sections on the background of these historic debates and on audience effects of the encounters.

  • Minow, Newton N., and Craig L. LeMay. 2008. Inside the presidential debates: Their improbable past and promising future. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226530390.001.0001

    Newton Minow, former chair of the FCC, worked with both the League of Women Voters (which sponsored presidential debates 1976–1984) and the Commission on Presidential Debates (which sponsored subsequent presidential debates), providing an insider’s view of presidential debates.

  • McKinney, Mitchell S., and Diana B. Carlin. 2004. Political campaign debates. In Handbook of political communication research. Edited by Lynda L. Kaid, 203–234. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    The authors identify several theories that can be used to understand election debates, review the literature on debate effects and on debate content, address the format of debates, and identify several areas for further inquiry: vice presidential debates, primary debates, non-presidential debates, and debates in other countries.

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