THE CRITICAL DEBATES
IN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
From talk radio, to television, to podcasts and to Twitter, we want students to understand not just the debates but the critiques, the spins and the patterns. We want to support teachers in developing critical thinking and news literacy in students — two things that will serve them throughout their lives and help them to be part of our democracy. This curriculum is designed to foster media literacy, by highlighting the most significant moments in televised presidential debates.
1992: CLINTON VS. PEROT VS. BUSH
By Andrea Stone
The 1992 presidential debates were the first to feature three candidates on one stage. In addition to Republican President George H.W. Bush and Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, they included Texas businessman Ross Perot, running as an independent. They met under the sponsorship of the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which had succeeded the League of Women Voters in 1988 and still runs the quadrennial debates today.
The precedent-setting second debate also marked the first time a town hall format featuring average Americans was used in a presidential debate. It dispensed with the traditional panels of journalists and would become a campaign trail -- and later a cable news network -- staple.
With “the establishment journalists” no longer in charge, the feel of debates changed dramatically, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of political history at Princeton University. ”Just having real people ask what was on their minds makes it looser, a little less predictable and a little less formal.”
More than 200 undecided voters sat on three sides of the three candidates, who perched on stools and walked around the stage as they answered questions from the audience for 90 minutes. The format played to the advantage of Clinton, whose personal charisma easily connected to real people. It was a disaster for the more buttoned-up Bush, who trailed Clinton in the polls after enraging conservatives by breaking his 1988 campaign pledge of “no new taxes.”
The most memorable moment came when a woman asked the president how the national debt and recession affected his life or those close to him. As she spoke, the camera caught Bush checking his wristwatch. The visual message conveyed a lack of interest and impatience. And Bush’s rambling answer only reinforced his body language. “I'm not sure I get it. Help me with the question and I'll try and answer it," he said before dismissing the idea altogether that a person had to be personally affected by the recession to understand it.
In contrast to Bush’s patrician answer, Clinton replied that in his small state, “when people lose their jobs there's a good chance I'll know them by name.”
Polls showed Clinton won the debate easily. He went on to win a plurality in the popular vote and a majority in the electoral college to make Bush a one-term president and Perot a footnote in history.
Bonus clip of high school students reacting to debates: https://www.c-span.org/video/?33347-1/presidential-debate-reaction
Third Full Debate October 19 in East Lansing: https://www.c-span.org/video/?33253-1/presidential-candidates-debate
 Original interview with Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer