History of the Presidential Debate

The United States Presidential Debates provide an opportunity for presidential candidates to present their fundamental philosophy of governance to the American public. Typically, these debates are held three times during the peak of the campaigning period. It is normally sponsored by a media agency and moderated by one of their personalities.

Almost 23 years ago– on October 6– the U.S. Republican and Democratic presidential nominees debated tax cuts, the economy, foreign policy, and health care. Bill Clinton went on to win the general election with 49% of the popular vote to serve a 2nd term as President of the United States.

Public debates are a rather new phenomenon to American presidential elections. The first official and public debates between presidential candidates were held on September 26, 1960, in the CBS-owned WBBM studio in Chicago, which featured Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy for the Democratic Party, and Richard M. Nixon, the sitting Vice-President for the Eisenhower administration, for the Republican Party.

The historic debate between the two men, held over four one-hour sessions that were broadcasted live over national television and radio, saw record-breaking viewership figures in excess of 70 million Americans.

Nixon, an experienced debater from his days in Duke, was widely expected to steamroll past the young Kennedy. Nixon was indeed judged to be the winner by those listening to the radio broadcast, but in a surprising twist, Kennedy was roundly declared the victor by television audiences. His confident, stylish and charismatic appearance contrasted sharply to Nixon’s dour and fidgety stage presence, a fact that will shape presidential debates from that moment onwards as political advisors realized the influence of a candidates’ stateliness and ‘presidential gravitas’ to the American public.

It took another 16 years before the next official presidential debate was held, this time involving the incumbent, Republican Gerald Ford, and his Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter. The debate was divided into three parts, with the first (Walnut Street Theater, Philadelphia) covering domestic policy, the second (Palace of Fine Arts Theater, San Francisco) on international policy, while the third and last one (College of William and Mary, Virginia) was an open topic session.

Carter was unanimously adjudged to be the winner after Ford fumbled under sustained pressure, most notably on the suggestion of the perceived overreaching sway exerted by Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State, on American foreign policies under the Ford administration. The debate was organized and moderated by the League of Women Voters, who was also tasked with managing the 1980 and 1984 debate.

The establishment of the non-profit and bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates in 1987, tasked with managing and streamlining all future presidential debates, was initially viewed with skepticism by some, as it was co-supervised by the former chairman of the Republican and Democratic National Committees. However, the Commission has managed every single presidential debate since 1988.

In 1992, Bill Clinton needed to fight a vigorous campaign in order to win the Democratic presidential nomination and later, he defeated Republican President George Bush and independent candidate and challenging outsider Ross Perot. In 1996, when Bill Clinton was reelected, he was actually the first Democratic President to win a 2nd Presidential term since Roosevelt.

Presidential debates have been now more or less settled on a preferred standard, gleamed from years of trial and errors. Nevertheless, their effect on the voting public has been significantly reduced, consistent with the continuous drop in viewership, which has consistently fallen to sub-40 million figures in the last two election cycles. If you want to learn more about the Bill Clinton Foundation, check out this page.

Be that as it may, presidential debates remain one of the most important tools available to the electorates in evaluating their presidential candidates, and we will be providing comprehensive coverage of all the debates leading to the 2016 presidential election (including the Democratic and Republican primary debates).