Debates: Taking civil argumentation to the high school and the national stage

Biden, Harris named by viewers as winners of presidential, vice presidential debates


Photo courtesy of Unsplash

This map conveys the early-on results of the 2020 presidential election, reflecting the outcomes of the presidential debates.

The 2020 presidential debates: What are they like, and what was the plan?

As the election came and went, the customary presidential debates have come to pass yet again — though with some notable alterations. 

The first presidential debate was held on Sept. 29 at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. The first vice presidential debate was held in Kingsbury Hall of the University of Utah on Oct. 9. Though the second presidential debate was cancelled due to President Donald Trump’s refusal to debate virtually, the third was held on Oct. 22 at Nashville’s Belmont University. 

Masks were made mandatory for audience members at all debates, and during the vice presidential debate, a divider was placed between the two candidates. 

The first presidential debate was largely acknowledged by audiences as, in a word, chaotic. Both candidates repeatedly spoke over the moderator and one another, trading phrases like “Will you shut up, man?” and “China ate your lunch,” according to CNBC

According to NPR, the vice presidential debate was significantly more civil, but neither candidate answered questions with much clarity. Both Sen. Kamala Harris and current Vice President Mike Pence often sidestepped questions, such as that of what would happen if either of the presidential candidates were to become incapacitated. 

The final presidential debate was also more well-handled by both candidates, and though they both did on occasion speak out of turn or over the moderator, it was much less loud and raucous compared to the first presidential debate. This was, in part, due to the Commission on Presidential Debates’ decision to mute microphones when needed. Both candidates agreed to remove the divider that would have otherwise stood between them like in the vice presidential debate. 


How exactly do electional debates work?

On an electional level, debates consist of the two parties (in this case, Biden and Trump or Harris and Pence) being asked questions by a moderator and replying in the allotted time amount. During their turns, either party may rebut their opposition or bring up points to aid their own claims. 

A week before the debate is to take place, the topics of discussion are released by the moderator and the Commission on Presidential Debates, according to the New York Times. This gives each party time to prepare for the debate, during which time the moderator will present six topics. Each topic is given 15 minutes for debate. In total, each debate lasts roughly one and a half hours, though it can go over by a bit if debaters go over their time limits.


How do high school debates work, as opposed to election ones?

Bailey Andera/Talon

Junior Anusha Rao is entering her third year on the Oak Park High School Speech and Debate team. The team competes in three overall debate categories: Lincoln Douglas, Public Forum and Parliamentary debate. 

Lincoln Douglas debates consist of a one-on-one competition between two people, who each receive their topics about three to four weeks before the date that they debate. Debaters are expected to prepare formal cases for both sides, as they will debate for both the affirmative and negatives of each issue. Topics switch every couple of months, so debaters go to multiple tournaments using the same topic within that time span. 

“Our current [Lincoln Douglas] topic is ‘Resolved: In a democracy, voting ought to be compulsory.’ I did [Lincoln Douglas] my entire freshman year and the half of sophomore year,” Rao wrote to the Talon. 

Public Forum, also called PoFo, is similar to Lincoln Douglas in that debaters receive their topics in advance. Public Forum is a partner event, so pairs face off within a round, and topics tend to be more policy-centric. Like Lincoln Douglas, debaters must prepare for both sides of the issue. 

Rao currently competes in the style of Parliamentary Debate, which is also a partner event. In Parliamentary Debate, speeches are split between partners, and topics are given out 20 minutes before the round. Within those 20 minutes, debaters prepare for their given side — either affirmative or negative — and then immediately head into their debate round. 

“Our topics can range from a variety of categories. For example, at our last tournament we have topics on Propositions, but also a topic on whether or not Halloween is cancelled,” Rao wrote.

Debaters are typically judged by the debaters’ parents and occasionally former debate students. Generally, it is required that there must be one available parent to judge at tournaments for every debater submitted for competition by the school. Parents usually attend training sessions before the competition and write debaters’ points down on a document called the “flow” which is essentially a diagram of each team’s speaking points. 

“Usually, the person or team who wins the debate is the one who more successfully argues their points and rebuts their opponent’s points,” Rao wrote. “Sometimes, it can come down to a weighing mechanism that a debater presents, such as ‘the person who wins this debate should be the one who upholds morality the best,’ or ‘the person who wins this debate should be the one to provide the most pragmatic policy solution.’”

Typically, debate tournaments have three to six rounds, though smaller tournaments have three, and larger tournaments usually have six rounds over the course of two days. In larger tournaments, the top 16 or top eight-placing debaters in each division move on to octofinals (in which 16 competitors are left) or quarterfinals (in which eight competitors are left), commonly known as elimination rounds. When competitors lose an elimination round, they are out, though they will often win awards for the number of rounds they competed in. 

“The presidential and vice presidential debates we see on TV are far from what a real debate round is like. There is so much formality and structure that goes into every round, and our team has incredibly hard working kids who put their all into each tournament,” Rao wrote. 


Who won each of the debates?

A poll by CBS News showed that viewers felt that Biden had won the first presidential debate, garnering 48% of audience votes, while Trump fell behind at 41%; the other 10% felt that it was a tie. 

FiveThirtyEight (partnered with multinational market research company Ipsos) reported a result that was more or less similar: viewers felt that Biden had done better in both his performance and policies. Results displayed that 59.7% of people felt that he performed better and 56.6% felt that his policies were better, as opposed to Trump’s 32.9% and 39.1%, respectively. 

Both vice presidential candidates seemed to have done better than their running mates. FiveThirtyEight’s results for the debate painted Harris as a winner, though by a slightly smaller margin. 69.3% of viewers felt that she performed well, and 61.7% agreed with her policies. By contrast, 59.5% of viewers felt that Pence performed well, and 44.1% agreed with his policies.

According to a poll of 1,848 registered voters by Politico, 54% of debate viewers had voted that Biden was the winner of the third debate, while 39% believed that Trump had won. However, a poll by ABC7 painted Trump as the winner by a small margin of 2% (Trump sported a 51% audience vote as opposed to Biden’s 49%). 

It is important to note, however, that debate winners and president-elects are not always the same people, and thus these polls cannot be used as accurate predictions of how people will vote. They simply stand to represent how people felt about the debates and their outcomes. The Talon encourages anyone who is 18-years-old or older to register to vote and be present in the voting booths on Nov. 3 in the years to come.