The History of Presidential Debates

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Every four years, citizens of the United States sit down for one or more nights to watch something which is called the Presidential Debates. 

The debates have become a centerpiece of US Presidential elections, but it wasn’t always that way. 

Learn more about the history of presidential debates, or the lack thereof, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

The history of presidential debates is shockingly thin. 

For all of the 18th century, the entire 19th century, and for most of the 20th century, there were no presidential debates. Zero. Zip. Nada. 

This makes a lot more sense if you realized the nature of campaigning before electronic media. 

Early on, presidential candidates literally did nothing. It was looked upon as being undignified for a candidate to speak on their own behalf. Campaigns consisted of party loyalists who would go and drum up support in local communities around the country. 

Candidates would mostly stay at home and meet with dignitaries who came to visit and pay respects. 

The first presidential candidate who even bothered to give speeches was William Henry Harrison in 1840 who gave 20 speeches while traveling on horseback. 

One of the first widely publicized debates between any candidates for any office was between Abraham Lincoln and Stephan Douglas for the Senate seat from the State of Illinois in 1858. They did a series of debates around the state, each of which lasted 3 hours. The strange thing was that people didn’t vote for senators in 1858, state legislatures did. The entire campaign was more for their parties than for themselves. 

Lincoln brought about a major innovation in his 1860 campaign for president with the wide use of broadsheets, These were large billboard-like prints which were put on the sides of buildings. Lincoln got his image everywhere in probably the first use of mass media in a US presidential election. 

However, there were no debates. 

Even with the rise of radio and motion pictures, there still were no presidential debates. Not only were there no debates but in the course my research I couldn’t even find an example of two presidential candidates ever sharing the same stage during an election. I’m sure it probably happened, but it was a very rare occurrence. 

The first-ever attempt at a presidential debate occurred in 1940 when Republican nominee Wendell Willkie challenged the incumbent Democrat Franklin Roosevelt to a debate in person. FDR declined the invitation.

The first-ever debate between any presidential candidates occurred on May 17, 1948, in the Republican primary between New York Governor Thomas Dewey and former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen. The debate took place before the Oregon primary and was on the topic of if the communist party in the United States should be outlawed. 

The debate was broadcast on the radio nationally by most major networks and had an estimated national audience of 40 million people. To put that in perspective, the audience for the most recent presidential debate was estimated to be 60 million people, even though the population today is over 2.2x larger than it was in 1948. 

There weren’t any debates in 1952. 

In 1956, the Democrats had a primary debate between Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver. This was the first televised debate political debate in American history. Accordingly, the debate was only 1 hour long as it was on television.

In 1956, a student from the Univesity of Maryland named Fred Khan tried to get both parties nominees, Adelaide Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower, to appear at a debate. He sent out letters to a wide number of people, including Elenor Roosevelt, who passed it on to the Steventon campaign, but nothing ended up happening.

The first true president debate between presidential nominees from different parties occurred in Chicago on September 26, 1960, between Democratic nominee Senator John Kennedy, and Republican nominee Vice President Richard Nixon. 

Most historians say that Kennedy won the debate because he was prepared for television. He wore makeup, looked poised, and wore a suit that stood out from the background on black and white TV. Nixon, who was very comfortable doing radio, didn’t have makeup and wore a suit that blended into the stage.

There were three other debates held between Kennedy and Nixon and the consensus was the Nixon won the second and third debate, with the drawing in the final debate. Unfortunately for Nixon, the audience for the first debate was the largest. 

This would be the only debate that Nixon would ever participate in because there were no more debates for the next 16 years. 

1964, 1968, and 1972 did not have any presidential debates. 

The next debate was in 1976 between Republican President Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter. The 1976 debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters, whereas the 1960 debates were sponsored by the TV networks. 

1976 also had the very first ever Vice-Presidential Debate between Walter Mondale and Bob Dole. 

In 1980, the debates had to confront an issue they hadn’t had to deal with before: a third candidate.

Representative John Anderson ran an independent bid for president and was showing up in the polls. President Jimmy Carter didn’t want to appear in any debates with Anderson, Govern Ronald Reagan, didn’t want to appear in any debates without him. 

The first debate was between Reagan and Anderson, with Carter sitting out. The second debate and the vice presidential debate was canceled.

For the third debate, Reagan acceded to Carter’s demand, and Anderson was not included.

Like John Kennedy 20 years before, Reagan’s years of on-camera experience was widely believed to give him the edge. In 1983 it was revealed that the Reagan campaign had access to Carter’s debate briefings, which lead to a scandal called Debategate. 

In 1987, after sponsoring the debates for the three previous elections, the League of Women Voters pulled out. Their complaint was that the two major parties were trying to micromanage and control every aspect of the debate. 

In their statement they said,

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.

Since then, every presidential debate has been sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. An organization that is co-chaired by the immediate past chairs of the Democratic and Republican National Committees. 

Since the Commission has taken over the debates, only one person from outside the major parties, Ross Perot in 1992, has taken part in a presidential debate. 

In 2000, the Commission increased the threshold for participation in a presidential debate. A candidate now must poll at 15% or better on five national polls to be included. 

In 2008, the Center for Public Integrity labeled the Commission as a “secretive tax-exempt organization” who gets 93% of its funding from six secret donors whose names have never been released. 

I’ll end this discussion with what might have been the greatest presidential debates in history. But sadly, they never happened. 

In 1987, Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for president, said in an interview that had Kenney lived, they had planned a series of unprecedented debates. He said, 

“Jack Kennedy and I had been friends for a long time. I actually had a few telephone conversations with him throughout the summer and early autumn of 1963. We eventually developed a debate format that would have completely altered how Americans choose their president. Unfortunately, the President died later on that fall. Afterward, his successor – Lyndon Johnson – wanted no part of it.”

Kennedy and Goldwater, despite their obvious political differences, were good friends. 

The format they discussed was similar to the original Lincoln-Douglas debates from 1858. There would be no moderator, no time limits, and they would travel together on Air Force One. They would question each other, instead of journalists asking the questions, and they were prepared for each debate to last several hours. 

Goldwater noted why the debates had the potential to be transformative.

“I also think that the nation would have been surprised to see the amount of respect and friendship we had for one another despite our obvious differences.”

It is too bad that the Goldwater-Kennedy debates never happened. They could have set a precedent that would have change presidential campaigns for decades.