Five Facts on Presidential Debates

Five Facts on Presidential Debates

Recently, President Biden announced on Howard Stern’s radio show that he was willing to debate former President Trump ahead of this year’s presidential election. President Trump responded that he would debate “anywhere, anytime.” With a potential first debate slated for September 16, Americans could have the chance to see the two square off in person for the first time since the highly contentious 2020 debates four years ago.

Here are Five Facts on presidential debates.

  1. The first televised presidential debate took place in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

On September 26, 1960, Kennedy and Nixon squared off in Chicago with an estimated 60 million Americans tuning in – roughly a third of the nation’s entire population at the time. A caveat to this fact is that, four years prior, surrogates for the incumbent Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democratic challenger Adlai Stevenson also debated the issues on live television. In fact, this debate featured two women – Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith from Maine, and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. While these two were not the actual candidates, their stature lent the debate significant weight.

2. Precursors to televised presidential debates existed as far back as 1858.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged in a series of debates as they campaigned against one another to represent Illinois in the United States Senate. However, according to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, “the Lincoln-Douglas Debates lasted three hours each, with the first candidate speaking for one hour, the second candidate for one and a half hours, and the first candidate replying for half an hour.” In 1948, Oregon hosted a presidential primary debate between two Republicans vying to challenge incumbent Democrat Harry S. Truman. New York Governor Thomas Dewey, and former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen featured 20-minute opening statements with eight-and-a-half-minute rebuttals.

3. Presidential debates have been organized by the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates since 1988.

Previous debates were organized by various groups, including the League of Women Voters. The CPD was founded in 1987 and is jointly sponsored by the Republican and Democratic parties. While this joint sponsorship has historically lent the CPD a great deal of legitimacy in the political discourse, it has also led to accusations that the current presidential debate system is biased against third-party candidates.

4. Under current rules, any candidate who polls higher than 15 percent in at least five national polls can participate in a presidential debate.

In addition, the latest edition of the rules stipulate that a candidate must be on enough state ballots to potentially win a majority in the Electoral College in order to secure a spot on the debate stage. This presents additional challenges for third-party candidates who don’t have the established party infrastructure to get on the ballot in every state.

5. This year’s first presidential debate is scheduled to be the earliest in history.

The previous record for the earliest debate was in 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan and Independent John Anderson debated on September 21. This year’s first debate will take place four days before early voting begins in Minnesota, the first state to offer in-person early voting. This week, the CPD denied a request from the Trump campaign to move the first debate up any earlier.