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During presidential elections in the United States, it has become customary for the main candidates (almost always the candidates of the two largest 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 arguably elections have been nearly decided by these debates (e.g., Nixon vs. Kennedy). Candidate debates are not constitutionally mandated, but it is now considered a de facto election process. The debates are targeted mainly at undecided voters; those who tend not to be partial to any political ideology or party.
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 (MOU) 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 have been broadcast live on television, radio, and in recent years, the web. 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 population of 226 million. Recent debates have drawn decidedly smaller audiences, ranging from 46 million for the first 2000 debate to a high of over 67 million for the first debate in 2012. A record-breaking audience of over 84 million people watched the first 2016 presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, a number that does not reflect online streaming.
While the first general presidential debate was not held until 1960, several other debates are considered predecessors to the presidential debates.
The series of seven debates in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen A. Douglas for U.S. Senate were true, face-to-face debates, with no moderator; the candidates took it in turns to open each debate with a one-hour speech, then the other candidate had an hour and a half to rebut, and finally the first candidate closed the debate with a half-hour response. Douglas was later re-elected to the Senate by the Illinois legislature. Lincoln and Douglas were both nominated for president in 1860 (by the Republicans and Northern Democrats, respectively), and their earlier debates helped define their respective positions in that election, but they did not meet during the campaign.
In 1948, a radio debate was held in Oregon between Thomas E. Dewey and Harold Stassen, Republican primary candidates for president. The Democrats followed suit in 1956, with a presidential primary debate between Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver. The Student Government Association Council of the University of Maryland invited both presidential candidates to the campus to debate. In August 1956 the Baltimore Sun wrote an article with the headline "Immigrant Urges Presidential Debates." Both chairperson of both parties were contacted and considered the suggestion. Fred A. Kahn, a student of the University of Maryland, Class of 1960, was an early proponent of national presidential debates. In August 1956, Kahn sent a letter to UM President Wilson H. Elkins in which he proposed to have the U.S. presidential candidates from both political parties together on the same platform to answer questions from a panel of college students. Kahn also sent letters to the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties, Maryland Governor Theodore McKeldin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt responded to Kahn that she "felt this might be something that would arose (sic) the interest of young people all over the country" and that she thought "it would be a gesture not only to all those at the University of Maryland but to young people in this group all over the country." Roosevelt also sent a letter regarding Kahn's proposal to James Finnegan, Adlai Stevenson's campaign manager, endorsing Kahn's proposal. The precise impact of Kahn's proposal on the Kennedy-Nixon debates during the 1960 presidential campaign is unclear, but his ideas did receive national press exposure. Four years later the first televised debates (the Kennedy-Nixon debates) were held.
The first general election presidential debate was held on September 26, 1960, between U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, in Chicago at the studios of CBS's WBBM-TV. It was moderated by Howard K. Smith and included a panel composed of Sander Vanocur of NBC News, Charles Warren of Mutual News, Stuart Novins of CBS, and Bob Fleming of ABC News. Historian J.N. Druckman observed "television primes its audience to rely more on their perceptions of candidate image (e.g., integrity). At the same time, television has also coincided with the world becoming more polarized and ideologically driven." From the outset, Nixon was considered to have the upper hand due to his knowledge of foreign policy and proficiency in radio debates. However, because of his unfamiliarity with the new format of televised debates, factors such as his underweight and pale appearance, the suit color blending in with the debate set background, reducing his stature, and refusing television makeup resulting in a 5 O'Clock shadow led to his defeat. Many observers have regarded JFK's win over Nixon in the first debate as a turning point in the election. After the first debate, polls showed Kennedy moving from a slight deficit into a slight lead over Nixon.
Three more debates were subsequently held between the candidates: On October 7 at the WRC-TV NBC studio in Washington, D.C., narrated by Frank McGee with a panel of four newsmen Paul Niven, CBS; Edward P. Morgan, ABC; Alvin Spivak, UPI; Harold R. Levy, Newsday; October 13, with Nixon at the ABC studio in Los Angeles and Kennedy at the ABC studio in New York, narrated by Bill Shadel with a panel of four newsmen; and October 21 at the ABC studio in New York, narrated by Quincy Howe with a panel of four including Frank Singiser, John Edwards, Walter Cronkite, and John Chancellor. Nixon regained his lost weight, wore television makeup, and appeared more forceful than in his initial appearance, winning the second and third debates while the fourth was a draw, however the viewership numbers of these subsequent events did not match the high set by the first debate. Nixon later refused to do television debates in 1968 and 1972 as he felt his appearance had cost him against JFK in the tight-run race.
General election debates were not 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, Hubert Humphrey and others in 1972.
It was not until 1976 that a second series of televised presidential debates was held during the general election campaign season. The debates were sponsored by League of Women Voters. On September 23, 1976, Democratic candidate, Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia, and the Republican incumbent, President Gerald Ford from Michigan, agreed to three debates (one on domestic issues, one on foreign policy, and one on any topic) on television before studio audiences. A single vice-presidential debate was also held that year between Democratic Senator Walter Mondale and Republican Senator Bob Dole.
Roughly an hour into the first televised debate, the broadcast audio coming from the Walnut Street Theatre and fed to all networks suddenly cut out, effectively muting the candidates in the middle of a statement by Carter. The two candidates were initially unaware of this technical glitch and continued to debate, unheard to the television audience. They were soon informed of this problem, and proceeded to stand still and silently at their podiums for about 27 minutes, until the problem - a blown capacitor - was located and fixed, in time for Carter to briefly finish the statement he had begun when the audio cut out, and for both candidates to issue closing statements.
The dramatic effect of televised presidential debates was demonstrated again in the 1976 debates between Ford and Carter. Ford had already cut into Carter's large lead in the polls, and was generally viewed as having won the first debate on domestic policy. Polls released after this first debate indicated the race was even. However, in the second debate on foreign policy, Ford made what was widely viewed as a major blunder when he said "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." After this, Ford's momentum stalled, and Carter won a very close election.
Debates were a major factor again in 1980. Earlier in the election season, President Carter had a lead over his opponent, Governor Ronald Reagan of California. Three debates between President Jimmy Carter, former California Governor Ronald Reagan and Illinois Congressman John B. Anderson were scheduled; along with a Vice Presidential debate between Vice President Walter Mondale, former CIA Director George H. W. Bush, and former Wisconsin Governor Patrick Joseph Lucey. Carter refused to debate if Anderson was present and Reagan refused to debate without Anderson, resulting in the first debate being between Reagan and Anderson only. The second debate and the Vice Presidential debate were both cancelled. Reagan conceded Carter's demands and the third debate took place with only Carter and Reagan. In the debate, with years of experience in front of a camera as an actor, Reagan came across much better than Carter and was judged by voters to have won the debate by a wide margin. This helped propel Reagan into a landslide victory. The Reagan campaign had access to internal debate briefing materials for Carter; the exposure of this in 1983 led to a public scandal called "Debategate".
In 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale won the first debate over President Ronald Reagan, in part by criticizing Reagan's age, a performance that generated much-needed donations to Mondale's lagging campaign. The second presidential debate was held on October 21, 1984, where Ronald Reagan used a joke, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience", which effectively negated the age issue and stalled Mondale's momentum.
Since 1976, each presidential election has featured a series of vice presidential debates. Vice presidential debates have been held regularly since 1984. Vice Presidential debates have been largely uneventful and have historically had little impact on the election. Perhaps the most memorable moment in a Vice Presidential debate came in the 1988 debate between Republican Dan Quayle and Democrat Lloyd Bentsen. Quayle's selection by the incumbent Vice-President and Republican Presidential candidate George Bush was widely criticized; one reason being his relative lack of experience. In the debate, Quayle attempted to ease this fear by stating that he had as much experience as John F. Kennedy did when he ran for President in 1960. Democrat Bentsen countered with the now famous statement: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
The year 1992 featured the first debate involving both major-party candidates and a third-party candidate, billionaire Ross Perot running against President Bush and the Democrat nominee Governor Bill Clinton. In that year, President Bush was criticized for his early hesitation to join the debates, and some described him as a "chicken." Furthermore, he was criticized for looking at his watch which aides initially said was meant to track if the other candidates were debating within their time limits but ultimately it was revealed that the president indeed was checking how much time was left in the debate.
Saint Anselm College has hosted four primary debates throughout 2004 and 2008; it is a favorite for campaign stops and these national debates because of the college's history in the New Hampshire primary.
Washington University in St. Louis, however, has hosted the presidential debates (organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates) three times (in 1992, 2000, and 2004), more than any other location prior to 2016, and it has been selected to host one of the 2016 debates. 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. The university hosted the only 2008 Vice Presidential debate, as well.
Hofstra University, originally an alternate site, was named the host of the first presidential debate in 2016, after Wright State University withdrew with eight weeks remaining. This positioned Hofstra to be the only school to host presidential debates in three consecutive campaign cycles.
Some of the debates can feature the candidates standing behind their podiums, or in conference tables with the moderator on the other side. Depending on the agreed format, either the moderator or an audience member can be the one to ask questions. Typically there are no opening statements, just closing statements.
A coin toss determines who gets to answer the first question and who will make their closing remarks first. Each candidate will get alternate turns. Once a question is asked, the candidate has 2 minutes to answer the question. After this, the opposing candidate has around 1 minute to respond and rebut her/his arguments. At the moderator's discretion, the discussion of the question may be extended by 30 seconds per candidate.
In recent debates, colored lights resembling traffic lights have been installed to aid the candidate as to the time left with green indicating 30 seconds, yellow indicating 15 seconds and red indicating only 5 seconds are left. If necessary, a buzzer may be used or a flag.
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 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.
According to the LWV, they pulled out because "the campaigns presented the League with their debate agreement on September 28, two weeks before the scheduled debate. The campaigns' agreement was negotiated 'behind closed doors' ... [with] 16 pages of conditions not subject to negotiation. Most objectionable to the League...were conditions in the agreement that gave the campaigns unprecedented control over the proceedings.... [including] control the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues."
The same year the two major political parties assumed control of organizing presidential debates through the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). The commission has been headed since its inception by former chairs of the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee.
Some have criticized the exclusion of third party and independent candidates as contributing to lower results for candidates such as the Libertarian Party or the Green Party. Others criticize the parallel interview format as a minimum of getting 15 percent in opinion polls is required to be invited. In 2004, the Citizens' Debate Commission (CDC) was formed with the stated mission of returning control of the debates to an independent nonpartisan body rather than a bipartisan body. Nevertheless, the CPD retained control of the debates that year and in 2008.
|Election||Number of presidential debates||Number of vice presidential debates|
|1960||Four debates between Vice President Richard Nixon and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy||None|
|1976||Three debates between President Gerald Ford and former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter||One debate between Kansas Senator Bob Dole and Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale|
|1980||One debate between former California Governor Ronald Reagan and Illinois Representative John B. Anderson, and one debate between President Jimmy Carter and Reagan||None|
|1984||Two debates between President Ronald Reagan and former Vice President Walter Mondale||One debate between Vice President George H. W. Bush and New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro|
|1988||Two debates between Vice President George H. W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis||One debate between Indiana Senator Dan Quayle and Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen|
|1992||Three debates among President George H. W. Bush, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and businessman Ross Perot||One debate among Vice President Dan Quayle, Tennessee Senator Al Gore and former Vice Admiral of the Navy James Stockdale|
|1996||Two debates between President Bill Clinton and former Kansas Senator Bob Dole||One debate between Vice President Al Gore and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp|
|2000||Three debates between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush||One debate between Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney|
|2004||Three debates between President George W. Bush and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry||One debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and North Carolina Senator John Edwards|
|2008||Three debates between Arizona Senator John McCain and Illinois Senator Barack Obama||One debate between Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Delaware Senator Joe Biden|
|2012||Three debates between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney||One debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan|
|2016||Three debates between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump||One debate between Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and Indiana Governor Mike Pence|
|Election||Debate||Sponsor||Location||Moderators||Panelists, pool coverage, etc.||Viewship||Source|
|1960||First debate||Sponsored jointly by the "Big Three" television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC)||WBBM-TV studios
|Howard K. Smith of CBS||Sander Vanocur (NBC), Charles Warren (Mutual), Stuart Novins (CBS)
|Second debate||WRC-TV studios
|Frank McGee of NBC||Paul Niven (CBS), Edward P. Morgan (ABC), Alvin Spivak (UPI), Harold R. Levy (Newsday)||61.9 million|
|Third debate||Split-screen telecast with Nixon and panelists in ABC studio in Los Angeles and Kennedy in ABC studio in New York||Bill Shadel of ABC||Frank McGee (NBC), Charles Van Fremd (CBS), Douglass Cater (The Reporter), Roscoe Drummond (New York Herald Tribune)
News: Bob Fleming (ABC)
|Fourth debate||ABC Studios
(New York, New York)
|Quincy Howe of ABC||Frank Singiser (Mutual), John Edwards (ABC), Walter Cronkite (CBS), John Chancellor (NBC)
News: Bob Fleming (ABC)
|1976||First debate||League of Women Voters||Walnut Street Theater
|Edwin Newman of NBC||Frank Reynolds (ABC), James Gannon (WSJ), Elizabeth Drew (New Yorker)||69.7 million|||
|Second debate||Palace of Fine Arts
(San Francisco, California)
|Pauline Frederick of NPR||Max Frankel (NYT), Henry L. Trewitt (Baltimore Sun), Richard Valeriani (NBC)||63.9 million|
|Third debate||Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall at College of William and Mary
|Barbara Walters of ABC||Joseph Kraft (syndicated columnist), Robert Maynard (Washington Post), Jack Nelson (LA Times)||62.7 million|
|VP Debate||Alley Theatre
|James Hoge of the Chicago Sun-Times||Hal Bruno (Newsweek), Marilyn Berger (NBC), Walter Mears (AP)||43.2 million|
|1980||First debate||League of Women Voters||Baltimore Convention Center
|Bill Moyers of PBS||Carol Loomis (Fortune), Daniel Greenberg (syndicated columnist), Charles Corddry (Baltimore Sun), Lee May (LA Times), Jane Bryant Quinn (Newsweek), Soma Golden (NYT)|||
|Second debate||Public Music Hall
|Howard K. Smith of ABC||Marvin Stone (U.S. News & World Report), Harry Ellis (CSM), William Hilliard (Portland Oregonian), Barbara Walters (ABC)||80.6 million|
|1984||First debate||League of Women Voters||Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
|Barbara Walters of ABC||James Wieghart (NYDN), Diane Sawyer (ABC), Fred Barnes (New Republic)||65.1 million|||
|Second debate||Music Hall, Municipal Auditorium
(Kansas City, Missouri)
|Edwin Newman||Georgie Anne Geyer Universal Press, Marvin Kalb (NBC), Morton Kondracke (New Republic)||67.3 million|
|VP debate||Philadelphia Convention Hall and Civic Center
|Sander Vanocur of ABC||John Mashek (U.S. News & World Report), Jack White (Time), Norma Quarles (NBC), Robert Boyd (Knight Ridder)||56.7 million|
|1988||First debate||Commission on Presidential Debates||Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University
(Winston-Salem, North Carolina)
|Jim Lehrer of PBS||John Mashek (Atlanta Constitution), Peter Jennings (ABC), Anne Groer (Orlando Sentinel)||65.1 million|||
|Second debate||Pauley Pavilion at UCLA
(Los Angeles, California)
|Bernard Shaw of CNN||Andrea Mitchell (NBC), Ann Compton (ABC), Margaret Warner (Newsweek)||67.3 million|
|VP debate||Omaha Civic Auditorium
|Judy Woodruff of PBS||Tom Brokaw (NBC), Jon Margolis (Chicago Tribune), Brit Hume (ABC)||46.9 million|
|1992||First debate||Commission on Presidential Debates||Field House at Washington University
(St. Louis, Missouri)
|Jim Lehrer of PBS||Sander Vanocur (independent journalist), Ann Compton (ABC); John Mashek (Boston Globe)||62.4 million|||
|Second debate||Robins Center at University of Richmond
|Carole Simpson of ABC||Questioners: 209 uncommitted voters town-hall debate||69.9 million|
|Third debate||Wharton Center for Performing Arts at MSU
(East Lansing, Michigan)
|Jim Lehrer of PBS||Gene Gibbons (Reuters), Helen Thomas (UPI), Susan Rook (CNN)||66.9 million|
|VP debate||Theater for the Arts at Georgia Tech
|Hal Bruno of ABC||N/A||51.2 million|
|1996||First debate||Commission on Presidential Debates||Mortensen Hall at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts
|Jim Lehrer of PBS||N/A||46.1 million|||
|Second debate||Shiley Theater at University of San Diego
(San Diego, California)
|Questioners: 133 uncommitted voters town-hall debate||36.3 million|
|VP debate||Mahaffey Theater
(St. Petersburg, Florida)
|2000||First debate||Commission on Presidential Debates||Clark Athletic Center at University of Massachusetts
|Jim Lehrer of PBS||Pool coverage provided by: FOX||46.6 million|||
|VP debate||Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College
|Bernard Shaw of CNN||Pool coverage provided by: CNN||28.5 million|
|Second debate||Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University
(Winston-Salem, North Carolina)
|Jim Lehrer of PBS||Pool coverage provided by: NBC||37.5 million|
|Third debate||Field House at Washington University
(St. Louis, Missouri)
|Questioners: Voters town-hall debate
Pool coverage provided by: ABC
|2004||First debate||Commission on Presidential Debates||Convocation Center at University of Miami
(Coral Gables, Florida)
|Jim Lehrer of PBS||Pool coverage provided by: FOX||62.4 million|||
|VP debate||Veale Center at Case Western Reserve University
|Gwen Ifill of PBS||Pool coverage provided by: ABC||43.5 million|
|Second debate||Washington University
(St. Louis, Missouri)
|Charles Gibson of ABC||Pool coverage provided by: NBC||46.7 million|
|Third debate||Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium at ASU
|Bob Schieffer of CBS||Pool coverage provided by: ABC||51.1 million|
|2008||First debate||Commission on Presidential Debates||University of Mississippi
|Jim Lehrer of PBS||Pool coverage provided by: CBS||52.4 million|||
|VP debate||Washington University
(St. Louis, Missouri)
|Gwen Ifill of PBS||Pool coverage provided by: CNN||69.9 million|
|Second debate||Belmont University
|Tom Brokaw of NBC||Pool coverage provided by: CBS||63.2 million|
|Third debate||Hofstra University
(Hempstead, New York)
|Bob Schieffer of CBS||Pool coverage provided by: ABC||56.5 million|
|2012||First debate||Commission on Presidential Debates||University of Denver
|Jim Lehrer of PBS||Pool coverage provided by: ABC||67.2 million|||
|VP debate||Centre College
|Martha Raddatz of ABC||Pool coverage provided by: CNN||51.4 million|
|Second debate||Hofstra University
(Hempstead, New York)
|Candy Crowley of CNN||Pool coverage provided by: FOX||65.6 million|
|Third debate||Wold Performing Arts Center at Lynn University
(Boca Raton, Florida)
|Bob Schieffer of CBS||Pool coverage provided by: ABC||59.2 million|
|2016||First debate||Commission on Presidential Debates||Hofstra University
(Hempstead, New York)
|Lester Holt of NBC||84 million|
|VP debate||Longwood University
|Elaine Quijano of CBS||36 million|
|Second debate||Washington University
(St. Louis, Missouri)
|Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC||Questioners: Undecided voters town-hall debate||66.5 million|
|Third debate||Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV
|Chris Wallace of FOX||71.6 million|