How to Watch a Presidential Debate

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Vice President Richard M. Nixon listens as Senator John F. Kennedy talks during their televised presidential race debate. October 1960. (AP Photo)
Vice President Richard M. Nixon, left, listens as Senator John F. Kennedy talks during their televised presidential race debate. This photo was made from a television screen in New York, Oct. 21, 1960. (AP Photo)

1) I recommend not watching the coverage immediately before the debate and, when the debate is finished, turn the television off and talk with your family about what you saw and what was important to you. And think about what you saw.

2) Candidates make different assumptions about government’s role, about economic policy, about the value of government regulation, about the role of the U.S. in the world, about appropriate use of military power, about US relationships with other countries… and the like. What are the governing philosophies of the candidates?

3) Come to a debate with a list of the issues that matter to you and ask what you learned about each candidate’s record and promises on those issues. Where are they similar and how do they differ?

4) When a candidate promises a new program or any move that will reduce government revenue — how will the candidate pay for it? Increase the deficit? Cut spending elesewhere and if so where? Raise taxes? On whom?

5) How accurate are candidates’ descriptions of opponents’ programs? And how accurate are a candidate’s descriptions of his or her own record?

6) Is the candidate willing to tell voters things they don’t want to hear about the challenges facing the country and what is required to address them?

7) If the country were faced with a crisis, what can you know from the candidates’ past performance, character, and dispositions about whether the country would be in good hands?

Get more of Professor Jamieson’s insight into what we can expect from the upcoming debates, and do your own fact-checking with help from one of the following websites: and and are projects of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which Jamieson directs, that aims to monitor the accuracy of major national candidates’ statements and rhetoric.

Columbia Journalism Review: Campaign Desk
The journalists at CJR turn their attention to “auditing” campaign ads, speeches and other media moments. In addition to CJR staff a group of veteran journalists will add their perspective to the Campaign Desk’s analysis.

The Fact-Checker
Run by journalist Glen Kessler, The Fact-Checker is a project of The Washington Post that publishes research evaluating and providing background and context to candidate statements and popular political stories.

Politifact and Truth-O-Meter
Politifact is an extensively cross-referenced fact-checking resource run as a joint project by the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly.

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