United States presidential election debates
During presidential elections in the United States, it has become customary for the main candidates (almost always the candidates of the two main 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 some have said that elections can be won or lost based on these debates.
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 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. By 2000, about 46 million viewers out of a population of 280 million watched the first debate, with ten million fewer watching the subsequent debates that year. In 2004, 62.5 million people watched the first debate, while 43.6 million watched the vice-presidential debate
While the first general presidential debate was not held until 1960, several other debates are considered predecessors to the presidential debates. In 1858, former US Congressman Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen Douglas toured Illinois and held a series of debates in the election for Douglas's Senate seat, which led up the presidential campaign of 1860 when both were nominated. In 1948, a radio debate was held in Oregon between Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen, Republican party primary candidates for president.
The Democratic party followed suit in 1956, with a presidential primary debate between Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver. An immigrant and a naturalized citizen who had survived the Holocaust Fred A. Kahn , then a University of Maryland student and Vice-President of its International Club, proposed modern Presidential debates. The press wires carried his proposal nationwide. He received the personal endorsement of the late Eleanor Roosevelt as well as that of the late Governor of Maryland Theodore mc Keldin.
The Student Government Association Council of the University of Maryland then invited both candidates to debate at the University of Maryland. At the time , the Baltimore Sun in August 1956 wrote an article headed "Ïmmigrant Urges Presidential Debates." Both chairperson of both parties were contacted and considered the suggestion which became , in fact, reality four years later with the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates.
Republican candidate Wendell Wilkie had challenged President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to a debate in 1940, but Roosevelt refused. The first general election presidential debate was held on September 26, 1960, between Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy and Republican nominee Vice President Richard Nixon and televised on all networks.
Nixon was generally considered to be the “loser” of that first debate, mainly because he did not prepare for the possibilities and peculiarities of the medium of television. His poor makeup, haggard appearance due to a knee injury and hospitalization earlier in the month, and his grey suit, which blended into the backdrop of the set, contributed to Nixon's poor showing on TV, although his performance came across much better on the radio.
While the consensus on the three subsequent debates was that Nixon clearly performed better and even won in some cases, his TV performance in that first debate haunted him for the rest of the season.
No general election debates at all were 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. It was not until 1976 that a second series of televised presidential debates was held during the general election campaign season. On September 23, 1976 the Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter and the Republican incumbent, President Gerald R. Ford agreed to debate on television before a studio audience. A single vice presidential debate was also held that year between Democratic Senator Walter Mondale and Republican Senator Bob Dole.
Since 1976, each presidential election has featured a series of presidential debates. Vice presidential debates have been held regularly since 1984.
The dramatic effect of televised presidential elections was demonstrated by two polls taken before and after the 1976 debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were taken. Shortly after the second debate, more than half of those interviewed felt that Ford had won, whereas days later the majority felt Carter had won. The reason for this dramatic shift has been attributed to a comment made by President Ford. He said "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." For several days, it was not acknowledged that he might have said something wrong. In subsequent interviews, Ford has said that what he was trying to say during that debate was that the Russians will never dominate the spirit of the Eastern Europeans. Moderators of nationally televised presidential debates have included Bernard Shaw, Bill Moyers, Jim Lehrer and Barbara Walters.
Washington University in St. Louis has hosted more debates than any other location, in 1992, 2000, and 2004. 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.
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. 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 dramatic press release:
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. The two major political parties had their own loyalists ready to take over the debates and did so in 1988 under the name of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). The two parties presented the 1988 debates and have done so every election cycle since. The commission has been headed since its inception by former chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties.
In 2004, the Citizens' Debate Commission (CDC) was formed to challenge control by the Democratic and Republican parties and attempt to return the debates to control by an independent, nonpartisan, rather than bipartisan, body. Chief concerns include the CPD's exclusion of third party and independent candidates. This effort was unsuccessful in its first attempt, as the CPD again controlled the 2004 debates. Some critics believe that this was partially the fault of the LWV in becoming increasingly politically aligned with the Democrats on gun control issues, in a break with their tradition of non-partisanship
In 1960 — four debates between Vice President Richard Nixon and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy.
From 1964 to 1972 — no debates held.
In 1976 — three debates between President Gerald Ford and former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter
In 1980 — one debate between President Jimmy Carter and former California Governor Ronald Reagan, one between Governor Reagan and Illinois Congressman John Anderson
In 1984 — two debates between President Ronald Reagan and former Vice President Walter Mondale
In 1988 — two debates between Vice President George H. W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis
In 1992 — three debates among President George H. W. Bush, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot
In 1996 — two debates between President Bill Clinton and former Kansas Senator Bob Dole
In 2000 — three debates between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush
In 2004 — three debates between President George W. Bush and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry