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Candidate Debates Are Centerpiece of Democracy: 1 of 3
February 3, 2015

Mitt Romney and President Obama at desk, Bob Schieffer facing them (AP Images)
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question posed by moderator Bob Schieffer as President Obama listens during the third presidential debate in 2012.

Debates among competing electoral candidates have become a campaign centerpiece in elections worldwide. More than 60 countries have developed a debate tradition, and civil society groups have been critical in making that happen.

Debates help voters make informed choices and encourage candidates to focus on policy issues, a conviction so widely held that these candidate showdowns have become mainstays of the electoral process in many places.

The National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit, nongovernmental, Washington-based think tank, offers the following guidelines about debates.

What Is a Candidate Debate?

A candidate debate is a neutral, dignified forum where political party leaders or others competing for elected office respond to the same questions, as posed by voters, a moderator or other debaters. Listeners are able to compare the candidates’ positions on issues.

Candidates mutually agree on rules, mostly regarding response and speaking time, to ensure fairness. Debates normally include some interaction among candidates through rebuttals or follow-on questions.

Goal of Debates

Debates address issues — not persons, religion or ethnicity. They will promote political tolerance, constructive dialogue and service to the people.

Debates Help Candidates Prepare to Campaign, Govern if Elected

Debates help candidates focus on issues they may not previously have focused on.

“They force us to think ahead.” — Bob Dole, 1996 U.S. presidential candidate for the Republican Party

“I am convinced that the debates I went through … actually helped me to be a better president.” — Bill Clinton, U.S. president 1993–2001

Debates Inform Voters

Debates are often the only time during a campaign when candidates are together at the same time in the same place. This gives voters an opportunity to make side-by-side comparisons and gives candidates a chance to say why they are best suited for the elected office.

Debates Help Reduce Political Tensions

In divided election environments or countries emerging from conflict, debates give political rivals a chance to show that, despite their differences, they can treat each other with mutual respect while they disagree on the issues.

Debates also provide a chance for candidates to commit publicly to a peaceful election, including agreeing to accept election results and use nonviolent legal channels to resolve election disputes.

Debates Promote Accountability of Elected Officials

During a debate, a candidate’s statements, policy positions and campaign promises become part of the public record. Once winning candidates take office, civic groups and the media can hold them accountable by citing transcripts or press coverage of debates.

Debates Highlight the Health of a Democracy

Debates are increasingly seen as benchmarks of a healthy democracy. Citizens view debates as an indication of an open, transparent election process where all candidates can compete equally.

More on debates is available in “Organizing and Producing Candidate Debates” on the National Democratic Institute website.