When Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon met in Chicago for the first-ever general election presidential debate on September 26, 1960, an election tradition was born. Login to The Great Courses access on Kanopy, on SCCLD's website, to watch highlights of "The JFK-Nixon Presidential Debates 1960".
While the debates took a while to catch on, it is now customary for the main contenders to debate late in the election cycle once each political party has nominated their candidate. To get an idea about the history of the debates you can go to our website and check out the ebook Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain, by James Lehrer. Or, by doing a keyword search for 'presidential debate' in GVRL - Gale Virtual Reference Library: Ready Reference eBooks, and logging in, you can find articles such as one titled Presidential Debates (by Lee Banville).
How important are the debates? Do they really help people make up their minds? Take a look at GVRL's article called Elections: Presidential Debates , by Kathleen Hall Jamieson; or, log in and do a keyword 'presidential debate' article search for Do Presidential Debates Really Matter?, by John Sides.
To see how the debates are organized and run, log-in to the database Explora for Public Libraries to find the article This is How the Debates Actually Work (from CNN Wire). You can also read the article in GVRL titled Commission on Presidential Debates (by Lee Banville).
Finally: how should you watch a debate; and, how are the 2020 debates set up? In the article search there is one called 5 Tips for Watching the Debates (by Mark Micheli). Then search the database Opposing Viewpoints (Gale in Context) for 'presidential debate' and you can read either of two NEWS articles titled US Presidential Debates: What to Know or What to know about the 2020 presidential debates. I hope this will give you a better understanding of what is happening during these current debates.