In light of this election season’s widely covered Republican debates, including one just this week that has already achieved media notoriety, we thought it a good time to delve into a brief history of presidential debates. In recent decades, presidential debates have become an expected part of the electoral process, both during party primaries and the general election.
Though not a single general election presidential debate was held in the nation’s history until 1960, there were several precedents for that landmark cycle. Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie challenged President Franklin Roosevelt to a radio debate in 1940, but Roosevelt had refused. Primary debates occurred between Republicans Tom Dewey and Harold Stassen in 1948, and Democrats Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver in 1956. In August of that year, a University of Maryland undergraduate named Fred Kahn contacted the university’s president along with the national chairmen of both political parties, the Governor of Maryland, and Eleanor Roosevelt suggesting that both major party presidential nominees meet in person to answer questions from a panel of college students. Mrs. Roosevelt, a reform-minded activist until her death six years later, endorsed the idea and forwarded Kahn’s letter to Stevenson’s campaign manager. Though nothing came of the proposal in 1956, it would influence the Kennedy and Nixon campaigns to agree to debate four times in 1960, though the first debate would draw by far the largest television viewership -- 66 million viewers (about 37% of the entire American population).
That first debate, held September 26, 1960 at the studios of CBS’ WBBM-TV in Chicago, is famed today for the divergent ways in which its television and radio audiences perceived the outcome. Gallup phone and in-person surveys in the days after showed that the television-viewing audience largely considered Kennedy, who appeared tanned, rested, and alert, the debate victor. Meanwhile radio listeners (a smaller audience by far) thought that Nixon—who had worn a rumpled shirt and refused to wear makeup for the camera—had won. Political pundits by and large felt that Kennedy had triumphed, but that Nixon won the following two debates, while the final debate (a forum on Cuba-U.S. relations held October 21st) was more or less a draw. You can judge for yourself; the first debate has been uploaded to YouTube in portions starting here.
Nixon later ascribed his loss to Kennedy in part to his poor camera presentation in that first debate, and refused to debate opponents Hubert Humphrey in 1968 or George McGovern in 1972. Nor did Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater face off at any point in the 1964 campaign. Thus the next general presidential debate would not occur until 1976, when a strong initial performance for Gerald Ford on domestic policy was offset by a second debate about foreign policy in which the sitting President appeared unaware of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. Debates were perhaps a more decisive factor four years later, with only one held between President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan. Audiences widely agreed that Reagan had won; the retired actor and ex-governor scored with memorable lines like “there you go again” and “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” After that debate the polls moved from a rough tie between Carter and Reagan to a convincing Reagan lead, and the Republican would best Carter by 9 points come Election Day.
Since the early 1990s, presidential debates have increasingly been governed by memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two major-party candidates and have gradually become highly formal, carefully crafted affairs. While some amusing visuals emerged in debates during the 1990s and 2000s—George H. W. Bush repeatedly checking his watch during a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, Al Gore sighing skeptically during George W. Bush’s rebuttals in 2000, Bush the younger’s “He forgot Poland” remark in 2004—rarely do contemporary general election debates shake up the campaign state of play or provide clear front runners amid an otherwise muddied race anymore. If debates ever did greatly influence presidential election outcomes, it is difficult to imagine that in today’s exceedingly structured format they would still be able to. Then again, instances like this remind us that presidential debates are still capable of creating some unforgettable campaign moments.