U.S. election primer: The presidential debates

U.S. presidential debates can provide make-or-break opportunities in a campaign. With Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump close in polls, the stakes for their first debate Monday are sky-high.

Clinton and Trump will face off 3 times, but the Libertarian and Green candidates are excluded

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will face-off Monday Sept. 26, 2016, in their first debate of the 2016 presidential campaign. It is the first of three debates between the Republican and Democratic candidates. (Carlo Allegri, Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters )

The first presidential debate of the 2016 U.S. election season kicks off Monday night.

It's a one-on-one matchup between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump. The two candidates vying to follow President Barack Obama are close in the polls, which emphasizes the high stakes for this contest.

Here's what you need to know about the presidential debates.

When and where?

Monday is the first of three debates between Clinton and Trump, and there is one debate between their running mates, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence. Monday's venue is Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

The second debate is on Oct. 9 at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and the finale is on Oct. 19, at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

The vice-presidential debate is on Oct. 4 at Longwood University in Farmville, Va.

(CBC )

Who are the moderators?

Lester Holt, the anchor of NBC Nightly News, will kick things off Monday. Elaine Quijano, an anchor and correspondent for CBS News will moderate the vice-presidential debate. Martha Raddatz, chief global affairs correspondent and co-anchor of ABC's program This Week, and Anderson Cooper of CNN, will moderate the second presidential debate. Chris Wallace from Fox News got the pick for the final debate in Las Vegas.

There is an understudy. Steve Scully, who works for C-SPAN, is the backup moderator for all of the debates.

What's the format?

Monday's debate will begin at 9 p.m. ET and run for 90 minutes with no commercial breaks. It will be divided into six segments of about 15 minutes each.

Holt will ask a question at the start of each segment and each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Then Trump and Clinton will have a few minutes to respond to what the other said. Holt will steer the conversation for the remainder of the segment.

The second debate will be in a town-hall format. The candidates will get half of the questions from the audience, who will all be uncommitted voters, and half from the moderators. Trump and Clinton will have two minutes to respond to each question and an additional minute for the moderator to facilitate further discussion.

The final debate's format will be the same as the first one.

Who picks the questions?

The moderator does. No, the candidates do not know them in advance. They do know, however, the broad topics. Holt announced a week ago that the questions will be related to America's direction, achieving prosperity and securing America.

Why are other candidates left out?

They didn't make the cut, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates, which sponsors the debates and sets the criteria.

The rules for 2016 say to get in the debate you have to be on the ballot in a sufficient number of states to have a mathematical chance of winning enough electoral college votes to win the election. Second, you have to get at least 15 per cent support in five different national polls. Which polls? The commission chooses and takes the average.
Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson did not meet the criteria to participate in the first presidential debate. (Alex Brandon/AP, Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

On Sept. 16, it announced that only Clinton and Trump met the bar. Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson's polling average was 8.4 per cent and the Green Party's Jill Stein was at 3.2 per cent.


Watch the debate live on, CBC News Network and CBC Radio One starting at 9 pm. ET. CBC News reporter Matt Kwong and poll analyst Éric Grenier will be taking your questions and fact checking the candidates' remarks on our live blog. 

The same criteria will be applied in advance of the second and third debates, so if Johnson and Stein move up in the polls in the coming days, they might have a chance to share the stage and spotlight with Trump and Clinton in October.

The commission says the purpose of the criteria is to identify the candidates who have a "realistic chance" of being elected president.

What do Johnson and Stein say?

Plenty. Johnson is a former governor of New Mexico and was also the Libertarian candidate in 2012, but he's not a household name. He has said he needs to be in the debate so Americans can learn who he is, what he stands for, and in an election where the two leading candidates are deeply unpopular, that there is an alternative choice.

It would be "game over" for his chance of winning the election if he's not in the debate, he said in an interview.

Johnson says the commission was created by Republicans and Democrats who don't want third-party intrusions into their televised debates for all voters to see, and this is a classic example of a rigged system. He has his sights set on qualifying for the second debate.

Stein also reacted by slamming the commission as a biased group that is upholding "two-party tyranny." She plans on showing up Monday anyway and is urging supporters to join her at the gates of the university to demonstrate. 

How many Americans watch?

Until 2012, the record for TV viewership was held by the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It was surpassed then by the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney debate, which attracted 46.2 million households, according to Nielsen, a company that measures TV viewership.
The debates between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012 had more than 40 million households watching on television. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

This year, given how nasty the campaign has been between Clinton and Trump, more Americans might be interested in watching than usual. The major networks will all air the debates on the good old fashioned television, but they will also live stream it on their websites. Twitter and Facebook are also getting in on the action and offering live streams.

What about Monday Night Football?

That's right, usually on Mondays, millions of Americans gather around the tube to watch football, not political debates. Soon after the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons take the field, Clinton and Trump will take the stage, and football-loving Americans will have to make a choice.

The second debate is on a Sunday, another big football viewing day in the U.S. Trump complained about the scheduling.


  • For pre-debate coverage, watch Power and Politics with Rosemary Barton starting at 5  p.m. ET.
  • For a financial perspective on the debate, watch On the Money, with Peter Armstrong, at 7 p.m. ET.
  • Live debate coverage starts at 9 p.m. ET on, CBC News Network, CBC Radio One.
  • Post-debate, join Rosemary Barton and the team from Power and Politics for ​highlights and analysis from 10:30 to 11 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multiplatform reporter with CBC News in Toronto. She joined the CBC in 2011 and previously worked in the Parliament Hill and Washington bureaus. She has also reported for the CBC from Hong Kong. Meagan started her career as a print reporter in Ottawa.