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What to Expect from the First Presidential Debate and Why You Have to Watch

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Sonoma chapter.



Tonight is the biggest night in television so far this election cycle. The first presidential debate between the nominated candidates of the two major parties starts tonight at 6 p.m., and if you’re eligible to vote (or even if you aren’t yet) you should tune in. This debate is especially important for those of you who may still be undecided on who to vote for. The debate will show those undecided voters where candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump stand on various issues in a focused, simple, question and answer format. There will be no teleprompters, no grandstanding, no surrogates, no changing the subject, no insulting the opponent (though that last one might be wishful thinking). If you’ve already made up your mind about who to vote for, the debate will help cement why you want your chosen candidate to become president. Here’s what to expect during tonight’s debate and why it’s so important for you to watch it.

The rules for the debates were negotiated by representatives from both campaigns months ago. Tonight’s debate starts at 6 p.m. and will be ninety minutes long, divided into 15 minute sections by topic. Each candidate will have two minutes to answer the questions and then the other candidate will have time to respond. It’s important to note that there will be no commercial breaks, so if you want snacks, make sure to get them before the debate starts. The debate will be broadcast live from Hofstra University in New York.

Both candidates have taken time off the campaign trail recently to prepare for the debate, knowing that with so many people watching, this debate has the potential to greatly impact support for their campaign. The New York Times reports that tonight’s debate could draw an audience of up to 100 million viewers. For context, the record audience for a presidential debate is the 80 million viewers who tuned in to watch President Jimmy Carter debate his eventual successor Ronald Reagan in 1980. The first debate of the last election cycle was watched by 67 million people.


Last Friday, The Washington Post reported that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein had not earned the requisite 15 percent in national polls needed to be allowed to participate in the debate. So tonight will be a one-on-one showdown between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump.



The last Democratic debate was April 14, and the last Republican debate was on March 10. It’s been months since either candidate has set foot on a debate stage, and they’ve never been onstage together. Hillary Clinton does have an advantage here, since many of the Democratic debates only included her and Senator Bernie Sanders. Whereas Donald Trump spent the primary season debating up to sixteen other candidates, and refused to participate in the last debate, which would only include himself and Governor John Kasich.


Politico reports that the topics for the first debate are “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity” and “Securing America.” However, the topics are subject to change based on recent news, so don’t be surprised if there are questions about the police shooting in Tulsa, the police shooting and protests in Charlotte, and the mall shooting in Washington. The moderator, Lester Holt, will have to make sure that the candidates stay focused on the specific policy questions, rather than insulting their opponent as they often do on the campaign trail. Expect both candidates to do just that.

Also, be prepared to follow along with your favorite news organization while they fact-check each of the candidates’ claims as they make them. A lot of them will be false or exaggerated, but thanks to organizations like Politico, networks like CNN, and newspapers like The Washington Post, you’ll know who’s telling the truth right away. Most of these organizations will be live-tweeting their fact-checking and commentary, so keep your phone close by and your Twitter app open.

Watching this debate will be especially important, since political strategists from multiple news organizations, including CNN and MSNBC, have speculated that this will be the only debate. That is despite the candidates agreeing to participate in a total of three debates, with on vice presidential debate in the first week of October. These commentators predict that no matter how this debate goes, Donald Trump might refuse to show up to the next two debates. If he does well, he will want to quit while he is ahead; and if he doesn’t do well he will not want to humiliate himself further (though history shows that he’ll blame the moderator with a series of angry tweets about being treated unfairly).

So hopefully you’re now really excited to watch the debate later. And while you’re waiting? Make sure that you are registered to vote! If you are, excellent! If you aren’t yet, you can register right now, here. It will only take a few minutes, and I’ve already done the incredibly challenging work of googling “register to vote online” to get the link for you, so you’re practically half way finished already. You’re welcome. 

I hope you will all have the time to watch tonight’s debate, I hope it helps you see each candidate’s positions more clearly, and I hope that even people who don’t love politics as much as I do look forward to watching tonight’s debate and realize the importance of your involvement in the political process.

Hello, my name is Charlotte! I am an English and Communications major here at Sonoma State, which means that I am pretty much always reading or writing something. I love reading articles posted here on Her Campus, so I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be one of the people who gets to write articles for the site. Aside from writing, I love reading, politics, Netflix, Disney princess movies, the word lovely and the color pink. Thank you very much for reading! all my love, charlotte
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