AllPolitics - Debates '96

Presidential Debate History

How we got them, and what they mean


Presidential debates are a modern television age creation. The nominees of the two major parties did not debate until 1960, when Republican Vice President Richard Nixon faced John Kennedy, the junior Democratic Senator from Massachusetts. Although the 1960 debates were popular with the public and broadcast nationally on network television, presidential debates took a hiatus until 1976. Their absence is due, for the most part, to incumbents refusing to debate and federal communications laws which required equal time for all presidential candidates, even minor ones.

Since 1976, debates have played an important role in presidential campaigns. Debates can rarely change the momentum of a campaign, but they can help candidates exploit an opponent's weakness, help deflect attacks, and provide a national audience some new ideas.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter benefited when President Ford stated, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." The press played up Ford's remark as a major blunder, and many analysts thought it helped Carter win the election.

The 1980 debates allowed Ronald Reagan to present himself as a moderate and humorous candidate -- shedding criticism by President Carter that he was conservative to the extreme. Reagan also used the first debate to outline his agenda to a national audience. (Carter skipped the first debate because independent candidate John Anderson participated.) Many political scientists believe Reagan could not have won the election without the debates.

In 1984, Reagan again used humor to allay fears that he was too old to be president: "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." That remark drew a hearty laugh from the audience and from Democratic opponent Walter Mondale, too.

In 1988, Democrat Michael Dukakis cemented his "wooden" image by responding to the question of what he would do if his wife was raped and murdered with a turgid reiteration of his opposition to the death penalty.

In 1992, Bill Clinton worked the new format of a "town hall" to its potential, empathizing with the audience's concern over the economy and health care.

Again, most debate experts agree presidential debates reaffirm people's opinions rather than change them. The debates are very useful for swing voters who, before the debates, have never seen the candidates without some type of a media filter.

Presidential debates before radio and TV

Debates did not play a role in the nation's early presidential races. In fact, for most of the 18th century, any campaigning or direct appeal for votes was frowned upon by the public and newspapers. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that candidates "were supposed to play coy, obeying a call to service from their country, saving their energies for the task of government. Electioneering was done by newspapers, pamphlets, and occasional public meetings."

Remember that newspapers during this time were partisan organs run by political parties, and did not report objectively. Great orators were plentiful, but important debates were limited to the Congress where, absent today's committee structure, the issues of the day were eloquently discussed at length on the House and Senate floor. Presidential candidates were expected to keep quiet, and it was not until 1840 that a presidential candidate (William Henry Harrison of the Whig party) even stumped to advocate his own election. However, most credit Harrison's victory to the split in Democratic voters, not his campaigning.

Perhaps the most famous and studied debates of the pre-broadcast era are the senatorial debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. Douglas agreed to the joint appearances only after Lincoln followed him around the state, making comments from the audience. These debates were, according to debate expert Lee Mitchell, the first debates with national significance. The debates were also considered a major success, as communications expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson wrote in her book "Presidential Debates": "They were orderly and closely attended. Both advocates were serious and articulate. They addressed themselves to a discreet set of political concerns. The debates advanced the issues, illuminating the areas of both agreement and disagreement."

The traditonal format of the debate, with no moderator or press panel, is also frequently lauded by debate experts. But as Jamieson has warned, candidates today likely would use the Lincoln/Douglas format to make a series of campaign speeches if there was no moderator present. The Lincoln/Douglas debates also were controversial because at that time, state legislatures still elected U.S. senators. The debates in front of voters who had no direct say in the election was seen by some as a violation of the spirit of the U.S. Constitution. The nation was intrigued by the Lincoln/Douglas debate topic (slavery) more than the actual Senate race, which Lincoln lost. The debates were followed nationally via newspapers and telegraph, but did not lead to a demand for more candidate debates. In fact, Lincoln did not debate once during his 1860 bid for president.

Presidential Debates in the Broadcast Era (before 1960)

Before 1960, there was little demand for, or interest in, presidential debates on the part of the public or the candidates. There were no general election debates, but there were three primary debates. The first was in 1948, when Republicans Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey debated on radio just days before the Oregon primary. In May 1952, the first nationally televised debate, Republican and Democratic contenders (or their representatives) answered two questions each at the annual convention of the League of Women Voters. On May 21, 1956, Democrats Estes Kefauver and Adlai Stevenson participated in the first nationally televised intra-party primary debate {before the Florida primary.)

According to debate expert Joel Swerdlow, the precise reason these primary debates occurred, even though equal time laws applied, is lost in history. Swerdlow said it is likely that invitations were extended to all primary candidates, and it also was possible that broadcasters were testing strength of the equal time law.

The most vocal group advocating debates were political underdogs wanting to share the stage with incumbents. For example, in 1940 Republican Wendell Wilkie, challenged FDR to debate the "fundamental issues" but was ignored by Roosevelt and the press, who saw the challenge as a media stunt.

In 1944 Republicans bought time on commercial radio directly following President Roosevelt's addresses.

In 1952, two months after the nationally televised League of Women Voters debate, Sen. Blair Moody (D-Michigan) became the first to make the specific recommendation that the presidential nominees of each party debate. NBC and CBS agreed to give free time, but neither candidate (Democrat Adlai Stevenson or Republican Dwight Eisenhower) accepted the offer.

The 1960 presidential debate

The 1960 general election presidential debates came about for at least three reasons. One, both candidates (Nixon and Kennedy) saw political advantage to using television; two, the national networks were eager to prove they could be civic-minded without federal regulations; and three, debates were seen as a part of a larger movement to reform presidential campaigns. Also, Congress suspended the equal time provision of the Communications Act of 1934, to allow a two man debate. The law stated a broadcasting station permitting a candidate use of its facilities had to give an equal opportunity to all other candidates for that office. (Meaning all MINOR candidates as well as the speaker's major-party opponent would be given equal air time.) The 1960 debate was the first face-to-face debate of the major party nominees.

Why no presidential debates from 1960-1976?

Front-runners not wanting to share the stage with opponents, as well as the equal-time provisions of the Communications Act of 1934, are the reasons most often cited by debate scholars for the absence of debates from 1960 to 1976.

President Kennedy appeared open to the idea of debating his Republican opponent in 1964, and bills suspending the equal time requirements were circulating in both chambers of Congress in 1963. However, after Kennedy was assassinated, the legislation was tabled. President Lyndon Johnson was continually challenged to debate by Republican nominee Barry Goldwater. But Johnson, not known for his debate skills, refused.

Nixon also avoided debates in 1968, and Republicans in Congress blocked an attempt to repeal the equal time provision. Nixon publicly cited the presence of third-party candidate George Wallace as the reason for not debating Humphrey.

In 1970, Congress passed a comprehensive campaign reform bill, including a repeal of Section 315 of the Communications Act, the equal time provision. Nixon vetoed the bill. In 1972, the House opposed the Senate's attempt to repeal the equal time provision because it would have included congressional campaigns (which meant House members would no longer have an excuse to avoid debating their challengers). So Nixon and McGovern did not debate in the 1972 campaign.

In 1975 the Federal Communications Commission created a loophole regarding the equal time provision. It ruled debates were "bona fide news events." That meant if debates were sponsored by some organization other than the networks, coverage of such a "news event" was exempt from the equal time requirements. The League of Women Voters quickly volunteered to sponsor, or "initiate" the debates. Its job of sponsoring debates was taken over by the Commission on Presidential Debates in 1988. Presidential debates are now an expected, if not institutionalized, part of the American political process.

Sources: "Let America Decide;" "Presidential Debates, The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate;" "Presidential Debates 1988 and Beyond;" interview with Anthony Corado; interview with Joel Swerdlow

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