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Why (and How) Do Presidential Candidates Debate?

A History of Presidential Debates

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America is a large nation, geographically dispersed. Thus, presidential candidates use mass media to reach voters because it is no longer possible to meet everyone who might vote (if it ever was). One way candidates do this is through television advertising. Another method of the modern era is the "televised debate."

These "debates" are misnamed: each candidate "answers" a question in a soundbite. This is not "debating" an issue, as any high school debate team member can attest. It is a made-for-TV battle of spin, and the candidate wins who has the best marketing people on staff (who develop memorable "bites" on each issue). Nevertheless, the presidential debate has become one of the most important rituals every four years as the American people decide which candidate to support.

History of Televised Debates

The first televised presidential debate was the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960. That series of four debates irrevocably changed the nature of electioneering and cemented television as a key mass media tool.

The next televised debates occurred in 1976 and were sponsored by the League of Women Voters. For three election cycles, the League managed the giant egos that are presidential candidates, but by 1988 they had abandoned the debates to the parties.

The two major parties established the "non-partisan" Commission on Presidential Debates, according to the Boston Globe: "[T]hen-Republican Party chair Frank Fahrenkopf and then-Democratic Party chair Paul Kirk incorporated the commission, and they have co-chaired the organization ever since."

As a consequence, third party candidates are, as a general statement, denied a forum. The exception was Ross Perot in 1992; he was polling well and pulled 19% of the final vote -- the best third party showing in modern American presidential politics.

Viewership

In 1960 (Kennedy-Nixon), the average audience for the four debates was 63.1 million. In 1984 - the last year that the League of Women Voters sponsored a debate - the TV audience averaged 66.2 million for each of the two debates.

Audience numbers have declined since the Commission took over, even though the number of people eligible to vote continues to climb. In 1988, the average was 59.7 million. By 2000, in a highly contested election, the average audience for the three debates was 40.6 million. So this is a decline not only in absolute numbers, but in relative numbers (the size of the audience).

Read More: How Many People Watch Political Events on Television?

Debate Importance

There are at least two presidential debates that are credited with affecting the outcome of an election: the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 and the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates truly took the form of a debate. Each man spoke for 1.5 hours; the opening speaker had a half-hour to rebut speaker number two. There were seven (7!) debates throughout the state of Illinois. 21 hours. These debates are credited with positioning Lincoln to be president.

The Kennedy-Nixon debates (which I studied in Journalism School) were the first to be televised. The sponsor was the networks: ABC, CBS, NBC. TV audiences, when polled afterwards, gave the nod to Kennedy; radio audiences, Nixon. It was the first instance of "appearance matters" and Nixon's body language (5 o'clock shadow and shifty eyes) did him.

Some pundits (I count myself in this number) believe that the 2008 presidential election will be seen by historians as being as pivotal as 1960. This time, the communication technology at work is the Internet. See, for example, the 2007 YouTube Debates.

Presidential Debates: A Historical Chronology

Date Participants Sponsor Number/Time
1858 Lincoln-Douglas NA 7/21.0 hours
1960 Kennedy-Nixon ABC, CBS, NBC 4/4.0 hours
1976 Ford-Carter League of Women Voters 3/4.5 hours
1980 Carter-Reagan League of Women Voters 1/2.0 hours
1984 Reagan-Mondale League of Women Voters 2/3.5 hours
1988 Bush-Dukakis Commission on Presidential Debates 2/3.0 hours
1992 Bush-Clinton-Perot Commission on Presidential Debates 3/4.5 hours
1996 Clinton-Dole Commission on Presidential Debates 2/3.0 hours
2000 Gore-Bush Commission on Presidential Debates 3/4.5 hours
2004 Bush-Kerry Commission on Presidential Debates 3/4.5 hours
2008 McCain-Obama Commission on Presidential Debates 3/4.5 hours

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