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Presidential Debate 101 with UNLV's Debate Team Coach

Communication studies professor Jacob Thompson on campaign history and how UNLV's selection as a debate site will leave a lasting mark on campus. Plus: Details on community watch events.

People  |  Jan 12, 2016  |  By Afsha Bawany
Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy

One of the 1960 presidential campaign debates between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/ABC News)

When Jacob Thompson heard UNLV would host the final 2016 presidential debate Oct. 19, he had a flashback to watching his first presidential debate as a kid in 1988 when George H.W. Bush battled it out with Michael Dukakis.

“I was an odd duck,” said Thompson, a communication studies professor and coach of the UNLV debate team. “I was the most politically engaged person in my family, and I had a strong and abiding interest in politics that progressed when I joined my high school debate team.”Jacob Thompson

In the past few years, Thompson, 39, led UNLV’s Sanford I. Berman Debate Forum to national rankings. He’ll teach a course on presidential debates this summer and fall with David Henry, chair of the communication studies department in the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs.

We asked Thompson for a preview of his class and why political debates can make or break a candidate.

What can students expect from the course on presidential debates?

The Presidential Debates class is going to be an amazing and interactive learning experience for UNLV students. In the classroom, students will learn about historic and contemporary presidential debates. We will analyze the communicative and argumentative strategies that candidates use in debates, and the political context that informs those choices.

Learning also will extend beyond the classroom. Students will watch and critically evaluate the 2016 presidential debates. They will participate in on-campus service-learning opportunities associated with hosting the last 2016 presidential debate at UNLV. They also will have the opportunity to attend lectures and roundtable discussions featuring nationally recognized experts in political debates. 

According to the Brookings Institution, the 2016 debates really matter because this election may be the most consequential and important election since the Great Depression.

I hope that this class gets students excited about the political process, that it helps them understand the political issues that affect our world, and of course, to learn about the unique role that presidential debates play in American democracy. 

How do voters benefit from watching presidential debates?

Studies consistently show that presidential debates are a foundational way for voters to learn about candidates. Presidential debates are the most viewed event in the election season. While there are hundreds of sources of information in any presidential campaign, only a presidential debate lets voters see the candidates side-by-side for an extended period of time. Debates allow voters to directly compare the candidates and their policy positions. They give voters a candid view of the candidate’s ability to think on their feet, solve problems, and respond under pressure or in the face of criticism. 

How does a presidential debate help or hurt a candidate? 

Presidential debates can be make-or-break events for any candidate. Of course, if any candidate has a terrible night at a debate, it could potentially cost him or her the election. On the other hand, a candidate with a faltering campaign can surge back to relevance with an unexpectedly impressive debate performance.

Many candidates have pegged their success or failure in an election to their performance in a presidential debate. In 2012, Mitt Romney said that he wanted presidential debates prep to be the "Manhattan Project" of his campaign. Jimmy Carter attributes his victory in 1976 and his loss in 1980 to his respectively excellent and poor performances.  

What was your favorite presidential debate or one that is critical to understanding the value of presidential debates? 

That's a bit like asking a parent, "Which child is your favorite?"

I've been fascinated with presidential debates for a very long time, and I love them all equally. A few of my favorites include the 1960 Richard Nixon/John F. Kennedy debates, which are the subject of quite a bit of urban mythology, the 1980 Jimmy Carter/Ronald Reagan debate when Reagan's persuasive power and charisma were in full effect, and the 2012 Barrack Obama/Mitt Romney debates, in which the tone and trajectory of both campaigns shifted dramatically between the first and second debates.   

Tell us about the the Nixon/Kennedy debates — the first televised debates.

There’s a popular narrative about the debate but it's not backed up by data.

According to the story, just before the first debate in 1960, Kennedy returned from a trip to California looking tan, healthy, young, and made for TV. Nixon, however, looked pale and thin as he was recovering from an infection and trip to the hospital. He looked disheveled, refused makeup, and wore a gray suit that blended into the debate stage's background. The story alleges that anyone listing to the radio thought Nixon won, but anyone watching the televised debate thought that Kennedy won. Kennedy did go on to win the 1960 election, but there is only anecdotal evidence to support the claim that his performance in the debate helped to solidify his win.

What persuasive techniques or communication strategies help a candidate? 

While the format for presidential debates differs greatly from the competitive debate that I coach, there are lessons that students can gather from presidential debates. First, and most important, success in any debate depends on three key strategies: preparation, preparation, and preparation.

A second lesson that is relevant to successful competitive debating is that "offense" matters. You have to take initiative and provide affirmative reasons to prefer your proposals, especially in comparison to the proposals of the opposition. You have to give people a reason to vote for you.