Did you know that debates weren’t a standard part of the presidential election campaign until 1960? The debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon signaled a change in the way voters could learn about the candidates and their stand on the issues of the day. Now watching presidential candidates and their running mates debate the issues is a major event that is broadcast on most of the major networks and thoroughly analyzed by the news media.
Many consider the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas during the campaign for the U.S. Senate from Illinois to be one of the first debates to reach a national audience. In the primary source set on Lincoln’s Rise to Prominence, students can read the correspondence between Lincoln and Douglas as they worked to arrange the debates. A description of one of the debates can be found starting on page 386 of the article “Abraham Lincoln: A History.” Though Lincoln lost this election to Douglas, when he ran for president the next year he had the transcripts of the debate published and they were sold around the country. This helped voters learn about Lincoln and may have led to his election as president.
- How are the Lincoln–Douglas debates different from those that take place today? Do your students think the negotiation between Lincoln and Douglas could happen between candidates today? why or why not?
- Have students listen to a portion of a presidential debate without seeing the candidates. Who do they think won the debate and why? Then have students watch the debate. How much does seeing the candidates change their opinion on who won or did not win the debate?
- Do students think that Lincoln would have been elected had he not had copies of the 1858 debates published and sold around the country?
- Encourage students to consider the impact of television on elections. How would they campaign for the presidency if they did not have access to television, the internet or radio?
- Students can also discuss the role of the internet and social media in today’s campaigns. What technologies do they think future candidates might use to get voters support?
- Have students brainstorm a list of issues or buzzwords from the current presidential campaign. Create bingo boards with those issues. Have students watch the debates and mark when one of the issues is mentioned. See if any students get bingo.
How will you encourage student engagement in the presidential debates?