United States presidential election debates

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John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon participate in the second 1960 presidential debate, held in the NBC studios in Washington D.C. and narrated by Frank McGee.

During presidential elections in the United States, it has become customary for the main candidates (almost always the candidates of the two largest parties, currently the Democratic Party and the Republican Party) to engage in a debate. The topics discussed in the debate are often the most controversial issues of the time, and arguably elections have been nearly decided by these debates (e.g., Nixon vs. Kennedy). Candidate debates are not constitutionally mandated, but it is now considered a de facto election process.[citation needed] The debates are targeted mainly at undecided voters; those who tend not to be partial to any political ideology or party.[citation needed]

Presidential debates are held late in the election cycle, after the political parties have nominated their candidates. The candidates meet in a large hall, often at a university, before an audience of citizens. The formats of the debates have varied, with questions sometimes posed from one or more journalist moderators and in other cases members of the audience. Between 1988 and 2000, the formats have been governed in detail by secret memoranda of understanding (MOU) between the two major candidates; an MOU for 2004 was also negotiated, but unlike the earlier agreements it was jointly released by the two candidates.

Debates are broadcast live on television and radio. The first debate for the 1960 election drew over 66 million viewers out of a population of 179 million, making it one of the most-watched broadcasts in U.S. television history. The 1980 debates drew 80 million viewers out of a 226 million. Recent debates have drawn decidedly smaller audiences, ranging from 46 million for the first 2000 debate to a high of over 67 million for the first debate in 2012.[1]



While the first general presidential debate was not held until 1960, several other debates are considered predecessors to the presidential debates.

The series of seven debates in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen A. Douglas for U.S. Senate were true, face-to-face debates, with no moderator; the candidates took it in turns to open each debate with a one-hour speech, then the other candidate had an hour and a half to rebut, and finally the first candidate closed the debate with a half-hour response. Douglas was later re-elected to the Senate by the Illinois legislature. Lincoln and Douglas were both nominated for president in 1860 (by the Republicans and Northern Democrats, respectively), and their earlier debates helped define their respective positions in that election, but they did not meet during the Presidential campaign.

Republican candidate Wendell Willkie challenged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a debate in 1940, but Roosevelt refused.

In 1948, a radio debate was held in Oregon between Thomas E. Dewey and Harold Stassen, Republican primary candidates for president. The Democrats followed suit in 1956, with a presidential primary debate between Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver. The Student Government Association Council of the University of Maryland invited both presidential candidates to debate at the University of Maryland. In August 1956 the Baltimore Sun wrote an article with the headline "Immigrant Urges Presidential Debates." Both chairperson of both parties were contacted and considered the suggestion. Fred A. Kahn, a student of the University of Maryland, Class of 1960, was an early proponent of national presidential debates. In August 1956, Mr. Kahn sent a letter to UM President Wilson H. Elkins in which he proposed to have the U.S. presidential candidates from both political parties together on the same platform to answer questions from a panel of college students. Kahn also sent letters to the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties, Maryland Governor Theodore McKeldin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt responded to Kahn that she "felt this might be something that would arose (sic) the interest of young people all over the country" and that she thought "it would be a gesture not only to all those at the University of Maryland but to young people in this group all over the country." Mrs. Roosevelt also sent a letter regarding Kahn's proposal to James Finnegan, Adlai Stevenson's campaign manager, endorsing Kahn's proposal. The precise impact of Kahn's proposal on the Kennedy-Nixon debates during the 1960 presidential campaign is unclear, but his ideas did receive national press exposure. Four years later the first televised debates (the Kennedy-Nixon debates) were held.

1960 Kennedy–Nixon debates

The first general election presidential debate was held on September 26, 1960, between U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, in Chicago at the studios of CBS's WBBM-TV. It was moderated by Howard K. Smith and included a panel composed of Sander Vanocur of NBC News, Charles Warren of Mutual News, and Stuart Novins of CBS. Historian J.N. Druckman observed "television primes its audience to rely more on their perceptions of candidate image (e.g., integrity). At the same time, television has also coincided with the world becoming more polarized and ideologically driven."[2]

Three more debates were subsequently held between the candidates.:[3] On October 7 at the WRC-TV NBC studio in Washington, D.C., narrated by Frank McGee with a panel of four newsmen Paul Niven, CBS; Edward P. Morgan, ABC; Alvin Spivak, UPI;[4] Harold R. Levy, Newsday; October 13, with Nixon at the ABC studio in Los Angeles and Kennedy at the ABC studio in New York, narrated by Bill Shadel with a panel of four newsmen; and October 21 at the ABS studio in New York, narrated by Quincy Howe with a panel of four including Frank Singiser, John Edwards, Walter Cronkite, and John Chancellor.

1968 and 1972 primary debates

General election debates were not held for the elections of 1964, 1968 and 1972, although intra-party debates were held during the primaries between Democrats Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and between Democrats George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey in 1972.[citation needed]

1976 to present

Carter and Ford debate domestic policy at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia (September 23, 1976).

It was not until 1976 that a second series of televised presidential debates was held during the general election campaign season.[5] The debates were sponsored by League of Women Voters.[6] On September 23, 1976, Democratic candidate, Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia, and the Republican incumbent, President Gerald Ford from Michigan, agreed to three debates (one on domestic issues, one on foreign policy, and one on any topic) on television before studio audiences. A single vice-presidential debate was also held that year between Democratic Senator Walter Mondale and Republican Senator Bob Dole.

The dramatic effect of televised presidential debates was demonstrated again in the 1976 debates between Ford and Carter. Ford had already cut into Carter's large lead in the polls, and was generally viewed as having won the first debate on domestic policy. Polls released after this first debate indicated the race was even. However, in the second debate on foreign policy, Ford made what was widely viewed as a major blunder when he said "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." After this, Ford's momentum stalled, and Carter won a very close election.[7][8]

President Jimmy Carter (left) and former Governor Ronald Reagan (right) at the presidential debate October 28, 1980. Reagan most memorably deployed the phrase "there you go again."

Debates were a major factor again in 1980. Earlier in the election season, President Carter had a lead over his opponent, Governor Ronald Reagan of California.[citation needed] In the debates, with years of experience in front of a camera as an actor, Reagan came across much better than Carter and was judged by voters to have won the debate by a wide margin.[citation needed] This helped propel Reagan into a landslide victory.[citation needed] The Reagan campaign had access to internal debate briefing materials for Carter; the exposure of this in 1983 led to a public scandal called "Debategate".

Since 1976, each presidential election has featured a series of vice presidential debates. Vice presidential debates have been held regularly since 1984. Vice Presidential debates have been largely uneventful and have historically had little impact on the election. Perhaps the most memorable moment in a Vice Presidential debate came in the 1988 debate between Republican Dan Quayle and Democrat Lloyd Bentsen. Quayle's selection by the incumbent Vice-President and Republican Presidential candidate George Bush was widely criticized; one reason being his relative lack of experience. In the debate, Quayle attempted to ease this fear by stating that he had as much experience as John F. Kennedy did when he ran for President in 1960. Democrat Bentsen countered with the now famous statement: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

The stage at Saint Anselm College during the ABC/Facebook debates in 2008

The year 1992 featured the first debate involving both major-party candidates and a third-party candidate, billionaire Ross Perot running against President Bush and the Democrat nominee Governor Bill Clinton. In that year, President Bush was criticised for his early hesitation to join the debates with him being alluded to a chicken. Furthermore, he was also criticised for looking at his watch which aides initially said was meant to track if the other candidates were debating within their time limits but ultimately it was revealed that the president indeed was checking how much time was left in the debate.

Moderators of nationally televised presidential debates have included Bernard Shaw, Bill Moyers, Jim Lehrer, and Barbara Walters.

Saint Anselm College has hosted four debates throughout 2004 and 2008; it is a favorite for campaign stops and these national debates because of the college's history in the New Hampshire primary.

Washington University in St. Louis has hosted the debates three times (in 1992, 2000, and 2004), more than any other location. The university was also scheduled to host a debate in 1996, but it was later negotiated between the two presidential candidates to reduce the number of debates from three to two. The University hosted the only 2008 Vice Presidential debate, as well.[9]

Rules and format

Some of the debates can feature the candidates standing behind their podiums, or in conference tables with the moderator on the other side. Depending on the agreed format, either the moderator or an audience member can be the one to ask questions. Typically there are no opening statements, just closing statements.

A coin toss determines who gets to answer the first question and each candidate will get alternate turns. Once a question is asked, the candidate has 2 minutes to answer the question. After this, the opposing candidate has around 1 minute to respond and rebut her/his arguments. At the moderator's discretion, the discussion of the question may be extended by 30 seconds per candidate.

In recent debates, colored lights resembling traffic lights have been installed to aid the candidate as to the time left with green indicating 30 seconds, yellow indicating 15 seconds and red indicating only 5 seconds are left. If necessary, a buzzer may be used or a flag.

Debate sponsorship

Control of the presidential debates has been a ground of struggle for more than two decades. The role was filled by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters (LWV) civic organization in 1976, 1980 and 1984.[6] In 1987, the LWV withdrew from debate sponsorship, in protest of the major party candidates attempting to dictate nearly every aspect of how the debates were conducted. On October 2, 1988, the LWV's 14 trustees voted unanimously to pull out of the debates, and on October 3 they issued a press release:[10]

The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates...because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.

According to the LWV, they pulled out because "the campaigns presented the League with their debate agreement on September 28, two weeks before the scheduled debate. The campaigns' agreement was negotiated 'behind closed doors' ... [with] 16 pages of conditions not subject to negotiation. Most objectionable to the League...were conditions in the agreement that gave the campaigns unprecedented control over the proceedings.... [including] control the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues."[10]

The same year the two major political parties assumed control of organizing presidential debates through the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). The commission has been headed since its inception by former chairs of the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee.

Some have criticized the exclusion of third party and independent candidates as well as the parallel interview format as a minimum of getting 15 percent in opinion polls is required to be invited. In 2004, the Citizens' Debate Commission (CDC) was formed with the stated mission of returning control of the debates to an independent nonpartisan body rather than a bipartisan body. Nevertheless, the CPD retained control of the debates that year and in 2008.


Source: Commission on Presidential Debates - Debate history
Election Number of presidential debates Number of vice presidential debates
1960 Four debates between Vice President Richard Nixon and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy None
No debates held
1976 Three debates between President Gerald Ford and former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter One debate between Kansas Senator Bob Dole and Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale
1980 † Three debates between President Jimmy Carter, former California Governor Ronald Reagan and Illinois Congressman John B. Anderson were scheduled; along with a Vice Presidential candidates debate between Vice President Walter Mondale, former CIA Director George H. W. Bush, and former Wisconsin Governor Patrick Joseph Lucey. Carter refused to debate if Anderson was present and Reagan refused to debate without Anderson, resulting in the first debate being between Reagan and Anderson only. The second debate and the Vice Presidential debate were both cancelled. Reagan conceded Carter's demands and the third debate took place with only Carter and Reagan.
1984 Two debates between President Ronald Reagan and former Vice President Walter Mondale One debate between Vice President George H. W. Bush and New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro
1988 Two debates between Vice President George H. W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis One debate between Indiana Senator Dan Quayle and Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen
1992 Three debates among President George H. W. Bush, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and businessman Ross Perot One debate among Vice President Dan Quayle, Tennessee Senator Al Gore and former Vice Admiral of the Navy James Stockdale
1996 Two debates between President Bill Clinton and former Kansas Senator Bob Dole One debate between Vice President Al Gore and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp
2000 Three debates between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush One debate between Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney
2004 Three debates between President George W. Bush and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry One debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and North Carolina Senator John Edwards
2008 Three debates between Arizona Senator John McCain and Illinois Senator Barack Obama One debate between Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Delaware Senator Joe Biden
2012 Three debates between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney One debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Wisconsin U.S. Representative Paul Ryan


  1. Shapiro, Rebecca. Presidential Debate Ratings: Over 67 Million Viewers Tune In. The Huffington Post. 2012-10-04. Retrieved 2012-10-27.
  2. Druckman, J. N. (2003). "The Power of Television Images: The First Kennedy Nixon Debate Revisited." Journal of Politics, 65(2), 559-571. Retrieved from EBSCOhost
  3. "Kennedy-Nixon Debates," The Mary Ferrell Foundation
  4. "1960 Debates". Commission on Presidential Debates. Commission on Presidential Debates. Retrieved 2 December 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Golway, Terry. "There We Go Again" American Heritage, August/September 2004.
  6. 6.0 6.1 "League of Women Voters and the Presidential Debates". League of Women Voters. June 12, 2010. Retrieved 2012-07-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/debatingourdestiny/dod/1976-broadcast.html
  8. "The Blooper Heard Round the World". Time. 1976-10-18. Retrieved 2010-05-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Washington University in St. Louis :: Vice Presidential Debate 2008
  10. 10.0 10.1 Neuman, Nancy M. (October 2, 1988). "League Refuses to "Help Perpetrate a Fraud"". Press release. League of Women Voters. Retrieved 2012-07-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Minow, Newton N. and LaMay, Craig L. (2008). Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-53041-3.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Moore, John L.: "Elections A to Z", Second Edition; CQ Press, Washington 2003
  • Patterson, Thomas E.: "Views of Winners & Losers" in Graber, Doris A.: "Media Power in Politics"; Congressional Quarterly Inc., Washington 1990, p. 178
  • Rutenberg, Jim: "The Post-Debate Contest: Swaying Perceptions"; New York Times, 4 October 2004, p. 1

External links

Debate critics and activists