The next presidential election is rapidly approaching, and voters are already being courted by a large field of contenders. In this eLesson, students explore some the major themes that candidates and voters grapple with during every election cycle. First, students will imagine themselves as candidates, craft their own policy platform, and consider the constitutional basis of their platform ideas. Next, they will observe presidential debates from 1960 and 2015 and determine if changes in debate methods help or hinder the election process. Finally, students will learn about the complicated mechanism that is the Electoral College, and think about the arguments for and against such a system.
- The U.S. Constitution
- The U.S. Bill of Rights
- Forms of Presidential Debate
- Video excerpt: The First Kennedy-Nixon Debate
- Video excerpt: August 2015 Primary Debate
- Documents of Freedom: Elections
- The Electoral College
- Where Does Presidential Authority Come From?
- Have students imagine themselves as presidential candidates. Have them write out a platform with 3-4 core issues that could be realistically proposed, describing their policy positions and their reasoning behind those positions. Next, provide them with access to the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and ask them to show where these documents provide authorization for their platform issues. Have students consider whether presidents should integrate the Constitution into their decision making. Can they think of any past government policies that conflict with what they saw in the Constitution or Bill of Rights?
- Changing Styles of Debate
- First help students understand the historical context of presidential debates by having them read the article “Forms of Presidential Debate” from Think the Vote. Show students the excerpt of the first 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Ask students to share their impressions of the two candidates and the style of debate. Themes for them to consider include civility, clarity, statesmanship, and effectiveness of argumentation. Do they believe these candidates were able to deliver useful information to voters?
- Another option for the 1960 debate footage is to divide the class into two groups. The first group should listen to the debate, but not watch the footage. The second group should watch and listen to the footage. Separately ask each group whom they believe won the debate. In 1960, many voters who only listened to the debate believed that Nixon had won, but many of those who watched believed Kennedy had won.
- Now show students an excerpt of the August 2015 Republican presidential primary debate. Ask students for their impressions of how things have changed since 1960. Do students believe the changes are good, bad, or neither? Are televised debates still an effective way for voters to learn more about candidates? How do candidates publicly behave towards one another now, compared to the past? Are candidates providing more, less, or about the same quality of information as they did in 1960?
- The Electoral College: Why Does it Exist?
- Have students read the Documents of Freedom essay on elections and the Electoral College, followed by the article “The Electoral College” from Think the Vote.
- Ask students to share their thoughts on the Electoral College and encourage them to ask questions about this complicated process. When in history has the Electoral College vote gone against the popular vote? Why did the Founders devise this system? Do students see any wisdom in using the College rather than relying on the popular vote? Ask if they want to replace the College with another system. If so, why do they want to replace it, and what system do they think should be used instead?