Unless you're fortunate enough to live in a state with a significant number of electoral votes up for grabs, your chances of meeting a presidential candidate in person during an election campaign are exceedingly rare. Many political campaigns prefer to use mass media techniques to create ballot name recognition, rather than time-consuming and low-visibility personal appearances. The one opportunity many voters have to examine each candidate individually and learn about their positions on issues is through a televised debate. A debate strips away many of the layers between the candidate and the voters, allowing candidates to display their rhetorical and leadership skills.
One way voters can use a debate to help choose a candidate is by evaluating each candidate's responses. A panel of journalists or academic leaders are usually allowed to ask the individual candidates specific questions on important issues facing the country. If the question concerns gun control laws, for example, one candidate may state he is in favor of a complete ban on handguns. Another may say she would never pass laws that restrict private gun ownership. A third candidate might say he favors a ban on certain weapons, but not on others. From these responses, individual voters can decide which candidate's beliefs most closely match their own.
A debate can also bring out character issues not seen in commercials or public speeches. During a 1988 presidential debate, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis was asked what he would do if his wife were raped and murdered. This question was intended to provoke a passionate defense of Dukakis' stance against capital punishment. Instead, Dukakis gave an emotionless, technical answer that did not address the question directly. Many voters who watched the debate were put off by his lack of emotion. A controversial question asked during a debate may provoke an unscripted emotional response from candidates, which could demonstrate either a passion for the job or an undesirable display of emotions.
A debate may also influence a voter's opinion through the candidates' abilities to react spontaneously or maintain a sense of humor. Candidates are often coached on how to respond properly to a question or how to appear confident on camera. What they cannot anticipate is an off-the-cuff remark from other candidates. When Republican vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle compared his accomplishments as a younger senator to those of President John F. Kennedy, his Democratic opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, countered with a devastating remark. Bentsen reminded Quayle that he had worked with Kennedy personally and, in his opinion, Quayle was 'no Jack Kennedy'. Quayle's inability to respond in turn was seen by some voters as a lack of experience.
One debate may not be enough to sway every voter's opinion, but it often gives undecided voters more criteria upon which to base their vote. Some say that the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate of 1960 encouraged undecided voters to lean towards the polished Kennedy and away from a haggard-looking Nixon. Professionals who evaluated the content of the debate suggest that Nixon actually won more arguments, but viewers perceived the camera-ready Kennedy as more presidential. This televised debate prompted political candidates and their campaign directors to focus more attention on appearance and delivery, not necessarily on the accuracy of their responses.