The Logic of Presidential Debates

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Ric...

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Debates between presidential candidates have been a part of U.S. presidential campaigns for generations. The format of the presidential debate is typically more restrictive than many traditional formats, forbidding participants to ask each other questions directly and restricting discussion of particular topics to short time frames resulting in scripted responses rather than a true debate of ideas . Despite being heavily dominated by sound-bites and political spin, presidential debates still offer a rare opportunity for the electorate to see and hear candidates side by side.

However, the scripted nature of presidential debates allows candidates to purposefully engage in logical fallacies in order to win political arguments. Logical fallacies are intended to appeal to emotion rather than reason and include:

Ad hominem– the candidate attempts to negate the truth of a claim by pointing out a negative characteristic or unrelated belief of the person supporting it.

False Dichotomy – the candidate claims their conclusion is one of only two extreme options, when in fact there may be completely different alternatives. The candidate then goes on to show the alternative position as clearly outrageous in order to present their preferred conclusion as correct.

False Equivalence – the candidate describes a situation where there is a logical and apparent equivalence, but when in fact there is none

Irrelevant Conclusion – the candidate presents an argument that may in itself be valid, but does not address the issue in question in an attempt to shift the focus of debate to “safer” but less relevant ground.

Straw Man Argument – the candidate misrepresents the position of their opponent by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequal proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.

Proof by Verbosity – the candidate tries to overwhelm those considering an argument with such a volume of material that the argument sounds plausible, appears to be well-researched, and it is so superficially laborious to untangle and fact check that the argument is accepted as valid.

As you watch the presidential debates, try to count how many times the candidates rely on the above logical fallacies to answer or avoid answering a particular question.

– TERRANCE MULLINS

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7 responses to “The Logic of Presidential Debates

  1. this is beyond funny, my poliscilab has nothing to say about the presidential debate and how obama looked over his head when it came to speaking facts. The president is playing CEO of the biggest business in the world and he doesnt have the slightest clue on how to go about building on this enterprise.,I think the president has great intentions and cares but this level of business is just beyond anything he’s ever done. It takes a very long time being involved in business with a great model to really have success. To many experimental policies at our expense, Money may not bring happiness but it buys financial freedoms so we can enjoy the fruits for our labor. Fiscally responsibility needs to be our focus.

  2. Sorry got type happy, here is my belated edits**too many**Fiscal responsibility

  3. While it is true that the debates are scripted, I believe it is important that they are so. This format helps the candidates to better get their positions acrossed in the time alotted. Presidential debates are important because it is one of the few times that electorate party are able to see how the candidates conduct themselves. It is a front row seat to watch party competition between the political parties. It is a time that helps voters to act on the rational-choice theory in choosing the candidate that best favors their views. These debates also help voters to better understand the party’s image and the candidate’s image and what they stand for. In summary presidental debates while scripted, do help the average voter to get a better understanding of the candidates and their positions.

  4. When the presidential debate went on air with Kennedy and Nixon, yes the roles were scripted along with their speeches, but is was a first for people with televisions to view them. What really played a big role was presentation, which the viewers, when it came time to voting, voted for Kennedy. What helped him win was his young looks and clean style. On the other hand, Nixon looked rugged and not so ready for the debate, although he was, viewers saw it as someone who didn’t see it important to be dressed up and think the debate important. Fact has it that he was ill prior to the debate so while recovering, he looked the way he looked. My point is, aside from being young and with a clean style, if it is polished enough despite both having very genuine facts and a very strong view for the country, I believe that was when it started for viewers to judge by looks and not beyond it, as well as the speeches.
    I was unfortunately unable to watch the second debate, so my responses about “watching the debate” and comparing what is listed above will be from the first debate with President Obama and Romney. Romney used of the Straw Man Argument on certain parts of his speeches, although, unfortunately Obama couldn’t catch them unless he incidentally did it on purpose to let Romney say all those things that were lies, then I don’t know what to make of it. Also he kept repeating many of his words and never really gets into detail as to what and how his plans are going to pan out. I know that on the second debate Obama won it. But I will not say anything about it since I have yet to see it. In other words, it was easy for plans and accusations to go through the other candidates field view without opposition when either not prepared or other method not aware of. These days with television, its more likely for either Obama and Romney to not only get their party image intact but that their speeches glorify them as well. Only thing is the facts afterward are taken into consideration and the lack of people reading newspapers and actually getting a rather detailed scoop of it, its more of what the voters information will come from, rather than just sticking to online snippets or 3 minute reviews, which give a broad but vague look into everything that went on.

  5. chapter 12 blog
    like how it is states in our book, the presidency is an composed of the roles presidents must play, the powers at their disposal, and the large bureaucracy at their command. it is also a highly personal office. the personality of the individual serving as president makes a different. this is shows how huge presidency is, that’s why to chose the right president we have to see them and know how they think and how they will serve our country. i am glad that we have the presidential debates because it really help people decide who to vote for. candidates know so well how important debates are, that’s why each one does his best to tell people i am the one who you should vote for. they prepare themselves before each debate, to be ready to answer any question asked to them. i think the one that follows the rules of the debates , keep calm, use his body language correctly, and answers the questions logically, basically the one that run the show in a smart way is the one who always win because we believe him and we wish he keeps his promises.

  6. As we all know the debates are scripted, however, they are a way in how people get to know better their candidates and their agendas. Instead of watching a true debate of ideas, we watch a scripted responses so that is why we pay more attention, perhaps more than it should be, to body language, how the candidates conduct themselves, how they answer. In one of the Obama and Rommey’s debates, they both used proof by verbosity, because while one candidate appear so secure and well research, the other candidate had the facts that prove that it was superficial statements. In my opinion the Obama and Rommey’s debates were aggressive and sometimes neither of them showed any respect when the other candidate was talking. Also the way that those debates are conducted help voters understand their commitments and what they have offer to the American

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