The presidential debates are surrounded by suspense and drama, as millions of Americans tune in to watch the next leader of the United States. But do the debates influence the way we vote? Have presidential candidates always participated in debates? And, what are the keys to winning debates? This guide attempts to answer those questions and offers a handy “scorecard” for determining who won the debates.
Have there always been presidential debates?
No. There were no presidential debates, as we now know them, until recently. Candidates avoided debating by claiming that such debates would diminish the image of the office. Nor did the media believe it was necessary to demand debates.
Historically, one of the reasons for not having debates was the 1934 Communication Act. This well-intentioned piece of legislation required all candidates for office be given “equal time” by the press. Accordingly, if the two major party candidates debated, all third-party candidates would have to be invited. At times, there were many third parties promoting candidates.
What about the candidates themselves?
Incumbents and frontrunners typically refused to debate their underdog challengers, reasoning that they had nothing to gain but much to lose by sharing the stage with their opponents. Now, however, a candidate would be hard-pressed to refuse to debate and would come across as looking weak if he or she did so.
When was the first debate?
The first formal debate among the party nominees in modern times was in 1960 and featured John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon. However, there were no General Election presidential debates in 1964, 1968, and 1972. Debates resumed in 1976 and have been held every four years since then.
What about primary election debates?
The Republican candidates participated in a primary debate in 1948. Thomas Dewey eventually won the Republican nomination that year but did not debate Harry Truman, the incumbent president. In 1956, the role was reversed. The Democrats had a debate in the primary race but there was no debate between Adlai Stevenson and the incumbent president, Dwight Eisenhower. In 2007 and 2008, the Democratic candidates had over 20 debates, which was a record that was equaled by the Republicans during the 2012 primary campaign.
When are the debates?
There are three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate scheduled for 2012. The presidential debates will be held on October 3 at the University of Denver, October 16 at Hofstra University, and October 22 at Lynn University; the vice presidential debate will be held at Centre College on October 11.
What is the format of the debates?
There are typically three presidential and one vice presidential debates. Some recent elections have featured a debate that has focused on foreign policy questions and there is usually now a town hall-style debate (which will be the second presidential debate in 2012), where audience members ask the candidates questions.
Who determines the format and location of the debates?
Ever since 1988, the non-profit Commission on Presidential Debates has sponsored and organized the General Election debates. Prior to 1987, the League of Women Voters assumed that role.
Do third-party nominees participate?
Some “minor” or third-party nominees have participated. For instance, in 1980, John Anderson debated Ronald Reagan, the Republican nominee, and in 1992 the Reform Party nominee, Ross Perot, participated in all three debates with his Democratic and Republican rivals. Likewise, Perot’s vice presidential nominee, James Stockdale, participated in the vice presidential debate.
Why don’t more third-party nominees participate?
The rules now require that, to be eligible to debate, third-party candidates must pass the threshold of 15 percent in opinion polls and must appear on the ballots in enough states to be able, hypothetically, to win the Electoral College.
DID YOU KNOW…
The 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon was nationally televised. Interestingly, those who watched the debate on television felt that Kennedy had won; whereas, those listening on the radio gave the debate to Nixon. What explains the difference? The visual image. Kennedy wore a tailored suit and was a natural in front of the camera, coming across as calm and collected. Nixon, on the other hand, looked uncomfortable, had beard stubble, and under the hot studio lights looked pasty and sweaty.
He said WHAT?
President Gerald Ford uttered one of the most infamous gaffes during his 1976 debate against Jimmy Carter. In response to a question about the Cold War, Ford stated, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford Administration.” Of course, the statement was the exact opposite of the truth. The audience was shocked by Ford’s mistake and in November he lost a very tight election.
Saved by the zinger
Ronald Reagan was anything