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The most recent US vice-presidential debate had a rule saying that debate topics would not be released "ahead of the debate". Obviously, they know that certain topics are more likely to come up than others (everybody cares about economics and taxes; nobody cares about boxers or briefs).

In cases like this do the candidates actually go on stage without any information on what has been selected? I would have expected that they would be handed an agenda a minute or two before going out, just so they can understand the flow. Is that right or do they have no idea what the next topic is until the question comes from the moderators lips?

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    That's not correct. At least the presidential topics were announced ahead of time debates.org/2020/09/22/… . I'm not sure whether the VP topics were announced in advance but I know there was a fair amount of discussion in the runup to the presidential debate on the framing of the "Race and Violence in our Cities" topic. – Justin Cave Oct 8 at 15:48
  • Thank you for correcting my memory @JustinCave – Adam Oct 8 at 16:29
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Candidates do not operate in a vacuum. Candidate and their staffs are aware of the topics that are likely to be raised in a debate — whether or not those topics are announced in advance — and are also aware of the kinds of positions that their opponents are likely to take. Those wise enough to do debate prep will work out counter-arguments for what their opponent is likely to say, shore up their own arguments against the kind of refutations their opponents are likely to make, and work on public presentation to make their platforms seem as palatable as possible. The rest is the art of forensics (in the archaic sense of debating in public).

Ideally, a debate is meant to give candidates an opportunity to show that they can make a sound, convincing argument in the face of opposition, without losing composure (because that is the essence of politics). Candidates are not informed of the specific questions in advance because people want to see their capacity for extemporaneous reason; giving them questions in advance would simply produce an exchange of talking points, not a real debate. Modern debates do not always (or often) live up to that ideal, obviously, but such is life.

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