Rutgers–Camden Selected as Participant in Commission on Presidential Debates DebateWatch2020

By Tom McLaughlin

After months of trading barbs and accusations, President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will square off face-to-face for the first time on Tuesday, Sept. 29, in the first of four televised presidential debates.

Rutgers University–Camden students will get an unvarnished view of the exchanges this fall via the university’s selection as a participant in the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) DebateWatch2020. The initiative is designed to bring people together to watch the debates, then turn them off at the end – before commentary – and respectfully discuss what they saw and heard. Further details regarding Rutgers–Camden’s debate-watching events will be available at a later time.

“We were chosen for the focused work we do promoting civic engagement, and being engaged in the electoral process is an important civic responsibility,” says Nyeema Watson, associate chancellor for civic engagement at Rutgers–Camden. “We look forward to bringing people together to watch and discuss what they see and hear in real time.”

Kelly Dittmar, an associate professor of political science at Rutgers–Camden, notes that the university’s participation in the DebateWatch2020 initiative is a vital tool for encouraging student involvement, while also giving them more knowledge about the history and influence of presidential debates.

“The debates give the students a chance to see the candidates engage each other directly and provide an opportunity for unfiltered analysis and discussion,” says Dittmar, who plans to watch them virtually with students in her U.S. Campaigns and Elections course.

Kelly Dittmar

Dittmar, whose course engages directly with real-time campaigning in the 2020 election, explains that watching the debates is an invaluable part of that process. She notes that it is relatively uncommon for candidates – especially those at the presidential level – to engage with one another directly and in a formal setting. Debates, she says, give voters a great chance to evaluate the candidates in direct comparison, as well as reveal their characters, expertise, or positions on a range of issues not selected by the candidates themselves.

“It can also show their capacity for clear communication and even compassion,” she says. “Simply reading a candidate’s policy platform or following them on Twitter doesn’t communicate these relational and behavioral strengths or weaknesses. Watching the candidates side-by-side might help the students – and voters in general – to make their choice and/or determine how actively they will support a candidate.”

Dittmar further adds that the current crises facing the United States – including health, economic, and social justice – have revealed weaknesses in U.S. governmental and political systems. The only way to strengthen those institutions, she says, is for the full diversity of U.S. citizens to participate actively in them.

“It’s especially vital that young people make their voices heard in policy debates and discussions because they will be among the most impacted in the long term,” she says. “Students are confronting especially difficult circumstances and it is important that their perspectives and priorities be taken seriously as potential solutions are debated. That only happens if and when politicians believe that the same group will hold them accountable at the ballot box if they fail to listen.”

The Rutgers–Camden researcher explains that, as she tells her students, the first step toward becoming more politically engaged is knowing what they believe in – not what their parents, friends, or peers believe in. She encourages them to think critically about what motivates, angers, and engages them and then use that as a launching point for political participation.

Just as important as this type of self-reflection, says Dittmar, is assessing and evaluating candidates’ positions and performances without seeing them through the filters of commentators or media.

“Students should be encouraged to hone their own skills of critical thinking, analysis, and evaluation based on what matters most to them,” she says.

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