Just the Facts

Five Facts on the History of Presidential Debates

By No Labels
July 8, 2019 | Blog

The first televised presidential debate was between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960.

Prior to the televised debate it was thought that Nixon had the upper hand in the race with more experience than Kennedy. Being new to the TV platform Nixon looked at the moderators instead of the camera while he spoke, and he wore a gray suit that made him blend into the background of the stage and looked thin and pale on-screen. Kennedy had a bronze complexion and made eye contact with the camera during the debate, allowing him to perform better and win over the viewers. Voters wholistened to the debate on the radio called the debate a draw or found Nixon to be the winner. This debate is thought to be a turning point in elections, marking the rise in the importance of public appearance and media exposure for candidates.[1]

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is the sponsor for the debates between party-nominated presidential candidates.

The CPD is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. The CPD was created in 1987 by the then-chairmen of the Democratic and Republican National Committees, Paul G. Kirk, Jr. and Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., respectively. The two chairmen decided to form the CPD after the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Harvard University Institute of Politics published two separate studies that recommended a mechanism be created to make debates a permanent part of the electoral process. The CPD sponsors only debates between party-nominated presidential candidates, while party debates leading to primary elections are organized by mass-media outlets, like CNN or Fox.[2]

The League of Women Voters (LWV) sponsored the 1976, 1980, and 1984 presidential debates.

The LWV in 1988 said they would no longer run presidential debates due to the unwillingness of the candidates to answer substantive and honest answers to spontaneous questions. The campaigns of the two presidential contenders for the 1988 election, George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, presented the LWV with a debate agreement two weeks prior to their scheduled debate stating they would give the campaigns control of the topics of debate, the questioners, the audience, and the press.[3]

The first 2016 debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was the most-watched debate in American History.

A record-breaking 84 million viewers watched the first presidential debate between Trump and Clinton on 13 different news channels. This number does not include those who streamed the debates online, watched on C-SPAN, or watched in groups, so the exact number of viewers is likely higher. Before the Trump-Clinton debate, the 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter held the record with 80.6 million viewers.[4]

Ronald Reagan accessed Jimmy Carter’s briefing papers prior to their 1980 debate

Carter’s stolen debate notes turned into a scandal known to the public as “debategate,” which was named after the famous “Watergate” scandal. The public was unaware of the scandal until 1983 when Laurence Barrett’s book, Gambling With History: Reagan in the White House,was published. The FBI and a congressional subcommittee both launched investigations into the matter, but both investigations were inconclusive. It is still unknown today who gave the briefings to the Reagan campaign and how much the papers impacted the debate.[5]


[1]https://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/kennedy-nixon-debates

[2]https://www.debates.org/about-cpd/overview/

[3]https://www.lwv.org/newsroom/press-releases/league-refuses-help-perpetrate-fraud

[4]https://money.cnn.com/2016/09/27/media/debate-ratings-record-viewership/index.html

[5]https://www.politico.com/story/2009/10/new-book-pins-debategate-on-dem-028317?o=0

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