Dr. Robert Watson's Guide to presidential debates


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.




Looks matter!

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 but impressive in the first debate in 1984. Press coverage of the debate described the President as tired and confused. Not surprisingly, the oldest president in history was asked during the next debate whether his age was a factor. Reagan skillfully turned the question to his favor when he chuckled, "I want you to know that also 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." The audience and public responded very favorably to the zinger.


The smack down!

George Bush's selection of Dan Quayle as his running mate in 1988 was immediately seen as a mistake. The tongue-tied Senator became a liability for Bush, especially during the vice presidential debate. During the debate, Quayle tried to quiet criticism that he was not ready for prime time, boasting "I have far more experience than many who sought the office of vice president. I have as much experience in Congress as John Kennedy when he sought the presidency." However, Quayle's opponent, Lloyd Bensten, shot back, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!" A shell-shocked Quayle did not know what to say and then muttered, "That was really uncalled for, Senator." But, Bensten pointed out, "You're the one who was making the comparison, Senator." The exchange proved embarrassing for Quayle.


Striking out

The 1988 Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, despite being a very successful governor of Massachusetts, was dogged by criticism that he was an unemotional "ice man." Dukakis missed a golden opportunity to appear passionate during the debate when he was asked a question involving the case of an African American inmate in his state who, after being paroled, went on a violent crime spree. The matter was well known, because it was used as a negative, attack ad against Dukakis during the campaign and the Governor's opponent, Vice President George Bush, alleged that it was an example of Dukakis being "soft on crime." So, during the debates the question was asked, "Governor, if [your wife] were raped and murdered would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Rather than responding with an emotional defense of his wife, which was what the public desired, Dukakis stated blandly, "No, I don't… And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all my life…" Dukakis offered a technically correct but technocratic answer.


Presidential Debate History


Year             Number of Debates                   Democrat              Republican

1960                4 pres. & 0 vice pres.              John F. Kennedy        Richard Nixon

1964                No debates                              Lyndon B. Johnson    Barry Goldwater

1968                No debates                              Hubert Humphrey     Richard Nixon

1972                No debates                              George McGovern      Richard Nixon

1976                3 pres. & 1 vice pres.              Jimmy Carter              Gerald Ford

1980                2 pres. & 0 vice pres.              Jimmy Carter              Ronald Reagan

1984                2 pres. & 1 vice pres.              Walter Mondale         Ronald Reagan

1988                2 pres. & 1 vice pres.              Michael Dukakis       George Bush

1992                3 pres. & 1 vice pres.              Bill Clinton                George Bush

1996                2 pres. & 1 vice pres.              Bill Clinton                Bob Dole

2000                3 pres. & 1 vice pres.              Al Gore                       George W. Bush

2004                3 pres. & 1 vice pres.              John Kerry                  George W. Bush

2008                3 pres. & 1 vice pres.              Barack Obama            John McCain

2012                3 pres. & 1 vice pres.              Barack Obama            Mitt Romney

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