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Not a Politics Junkie? Here's What You Need to Know Before the First Debate

Not a Politics Junkie? Here's What You Need to Know Before the First Debate

Though it feels like an eternity since politicians on both sides of the aisle began announcing their intent to run for president in 2016, the campaigning comes to a head tomorrow with the real kickoff to the general election: the first presidential debate.

The first key event of the home stretch will take place at Hofstra University on September 26 and marks the first time that Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton will take the stage and duke it out for the highest office in the land.

People who have been following the race closely may feel fatigued from the unending news cycle. But those who have (perhaps deliberately) been turning a blind eye may find themselves a little lost come Monday night.

The good news is there’s still plenty of time between now and the general election on November 8 to brush up on each candidate's policies.

And to help you get your bearings before tomorrow night, we’ve broken down some key things you need to know before the debates get under way.

How are the candidates doing in the polls?
The RealClearPolitics poll, which is the average of several different national polls (because there are so many to choose from!), has Clinton at 46.2 percent, up 3 points from Trump, who is at 43.2 percent (as of Friday). On the other hand, a FiveThirtyEight projection currently gives Clinton a 60.3 percent chance of winning.

Got it. So I know who I like — but what about their VP?
Last weekend, George Stephanopoulos interviewed all the vice presidential candidates on This Week, and they talked about their views on a variety of things, which you can watch on demand here. Not a fan of watching your news? There’s a transcript, too.

What about the scandals? How can I learn more about those without being misinformed?
If you’re talking about . . .

  • Clinton’s emails: The New York Times has one of the most detailed and frequently updated overviews of everything that’s gone down so far and where we currently stand on things.
  • Trump’s foreign ties: This is a new one on the list, but follow Newsweek for the latest information on what you need to know.
  • Trump’s money: David Fahrenthold at The Washington Post has been doggedly reporting many of Trump’s questionable financial dealings, the latest of which is here.

What can I do to understand the whole process a little better without reading through a billion pages of text?
In order to not completely overdose on political intrigue, I’d highly recommend indulging in some mediums that aren’t operating on a 24-hour news basis and mixing in some fictional sources as well. Specifically:


  • John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal are incredibly funny and interesting ways to learn about the issues and what’s happened in the week gone by.  
  • The West Wing has a phenomenal episode centered strictly on debates, though truthfully it’s a great show to watch during any election, as it makes the whole process click.
  • As Julia Louis-Dreyfus said, Veep “started out as a political satire, but it now feels more like a sobering documentary.” And indeed the HBO comedy does a surprisingly accurate job of showing what Washington is like on a day-to-day basis. 


  • Slate’s Political Gabfest is a great source of general politics information.
  • FiveThirtyEight’s Elections will keep you up-to-date on the polls.
  • Vox’s The Weeds will keep you abreast of any and all info you need to know on policy.
  • NPR’s Politics is your go-to for national politics overall.


  • Wag the Dog will show you how the public perspective of a candidate is spun, and Primary Colors focuses on the inner workings of a political campaign.
  • Recount dives deep into the inner workings of the contested 2000 presidential election, whereas Game Change dramatizes the ill-fated McCain-Palin ticket of 2008.

When are the debates, what are they about, and how can I watch them?
Unlike the primary debates, the three general presidential debates and one vice presidential debate will be broadcast simultaneously on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, C-Span, and cable news networks. They will also take place in the same 90-minute time slot, from 9:00 to 10:30 p.m. EST; 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. PST. Other than that, the details are as follows:

Monday, September 26: Presidential
Location: Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York Moderator: Lester Holt, NBC News Format: Six 15-minute segments 
Announced topics: America’s Direction, Achieve Prosperity, Securing America 

Tuesday, October 4: Vice Presidential 
Location: Longwood University, Farmville, Virginia
Moderator: Elaine Quijano, CBS News Format: Nine 10-minute segments

Sunday, October 9: Presidential
Location: Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri
Moderators: Anderson Cooper, CNN, and Martha Raddatz 
ABC Format: Town hall Half the questions will be taken from the crowd and half will be from the moderator.

Wednesday, October 19: Presidential
Location: University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Moderator: Chris Wallace, Fox News
Format: Six 15-minute segments, topics TBA

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