Yet for all the hype and spin, these debates are actually about something relatively simple: They are an opportunity for both candidates to make their cases to the American public, to present their ideas in a clear manner in the hopes of convincing voters that they are truly fit to lead the country.
With that in mind, we asked you, our readers, what you want from the first debate: which questions you were concerned about, which issues you wanted discussed, and which policies you wanted clarified.
As always, you gave us fantastic feedback, suggesting that the debates should cover issues from the fiscal cliff to student loans, gas prices to Obama's birth certificate. But, amid the mix of ideas, a few trends emerged. Here are some of the topics that are most important to you.
A Good, Clean Fight
Given the relentless nature of the campaigns for the past few months, it's not surprising that a large number of readers were concerned about the conduct of the debate itself. "Dutda" questioned the political leanings of the moderator, Jim Lehrer, stating "another concern is that all of the moderators are Democrats. I hope they will be fair." Another commenter, "Mary Spence," echoed this, stating that "The moderators are from the left wing media, which is wrong." She suggested that the debates "should have two moderators, one from Fox news and one from CNN or MSNBC."
Beyond the politics of the moderators, many readers were concerned about their conduct of the debates. "Allen0314" alluded to this, asking "What do you think the chances are that the moderator will make them give SPECIFIC answers, as opposed to the off-subject, non-specific answers that we always get?" Similarly, "Phil Reeves" noted that the current debate system allows minimal back-and-forth between the candidates: "I'd like to hear the candidates be able to question and respond to each other."
"Frank Boyle" offered an even more comprehensive response, suggesting that America should return to the days of Lincoln vs. Douglas: "The moderator should only be used as a red light timekeeper. There should be two minutes per response, and each candidate must answer directly or his competitor gets an added question at the end." He admits, however, that "I'll bet the farm that neither will agree to this format."
Jim Nestor, of Scarsdale, N.Y. extended his suggestions beyond the debate, noting that "Prime Minister Cameron of the UK was limited to spending $150,000 on his campaign to lead his party," and asking "What, if anything, is each candidate prepared to do to reform our corrupt campaign financing system?"
With unemployment and underemployment still too high, many readers were concerned about the candidates' ability to get people back to work. Esther Busenlehner wrote, "I want, as detailed as possible, just how they propose to lead the country in creating new jobs."
Pam Newton was even more specific, stating that "I'm tired of the generalizations and rhetoric indicating 20 millions jobs. Where and how will these be created? Ask Romney how he will create more jobs. Press Obama on how he plans to get the unemployment down."
But not all jobs are created equal, a point that Christina Sussman made when she asked "How will Obama and/or Romney create meaningful, well-paying middle management jobs, not just work in retail and hospitality?" Charles Cooper, of Fredricksburg, Va., made the question even harder, putting it in context of the impressive, wide-ranging campaign claims that Romney and Obama have made. Noting the often conflicting nature of these promises, he asked "How will the candidates specifically balance the budget, reduce the debt, and at the same time increase the size of the workforce?"
Another major problem is the deficit, an issue that "Textbooker 2" put in context by asking, "Why should we give Obama any more time he promised to cut the deficit in half and get the economy going in his first term?" Other readers echoed the question, and Beth Colucci suggested that it is the signature concern of the election "The debate should be solely on how to get the economy moving forward. How to shrink the national debt. How to shrink government."
But while readers were concerned about reducing America's debt, they were also worried about cuts to some of its most popular programs. Mary Spence, for example, wondered if Medicare is safe: "I would like to know the real story about if Obama raided the Medicare account to pay for his Obamacare and how this is affecting the future care of seniors and retirees." Helene Kaplan echoed this, emphasizing that "They must discuss Social Security and Medicare at this debate!"
Other readers wanted clear answers to some of the rhetoric about the program. Karen Brown, for example, notes that "Obamacare is a threat to businesses," but wonders if "Romney's health care really is really vouchers. If so how do they work?" "KafienKarl" requests, "I want to hear why RomneyCare is great but ObamaCare is terrible socialism. "
Questions of national defense also drew a lot of concern from readers. Karen Brown wrote that "I want to know what the hell Obama is doing about keeping us safe and fighting for freedom." Similarly, Amanda Jones noted that "I would like to know a little more about their national defense plan and the issues pertaining to Iran and their threats on America."
For many readers, the big bank bailout that Bush began and Obama continued remains a sore spot. Bruce Gustafson hearkens back to this issue, writing that "I'd like to know why the banks that are too big to fail are getting bigger instead of being broken up?" Other writers put this in a more personal frame. "EgCmrn," for example, wrote that "The banks are getting rich and charging 100 times more for loans. So lets talk about us retirees who live on interest and dividends."
Other readers touched on issues of class and wealth. Some, like Christina Sussman, noted that "I do not believe in wealth redistribution," while others, like Beth Colucci, blamed the current class struggle on the President, writing "We need to do away with the class separation that has been escalated with Barack Obama."
Other readers offered answers. "MrsCaptnDavid," wrote that "We need manufacturing jobs to return if we hope to help the middle class." She asked, "How do the candidates plan to help bring jobs back to this country?" Another reader, "Grigsby," was more focused on wealth inequality, writing "Given that the top 1% of the population controls 67% of all the financial assets in the country and their median net worth is 288 times that of the average American household, I want to hear how the candidates plan to redistribute their wealth through income taxes, wealth taxes, or inheritance taxes back to the American people."
There is a widespread assumption that the public is uninterested in politics, and is incapable of understanding the finer points of the political process. This argument, often pushed by the press, the punditariat and politicians, assumes that the key to winning elections lies not in explaining policies, but in scoring points, not in analyzing issues, but in issuing catchphrases. While DailyFinance's readers come from across the political spectrum, their responses to our call for debate questions suggests that many of them share a deep concern with the country and a desire to more completely understand the issues facing America. With any luck, tonight's debate will move that understanding -- and that desire -- along.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.