Everything you need to know about presidential debate history

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama's clash this week will be just the latest in a long tradition of presidential showdowns

Richard Nixon (left), debates John F. Kennedy (right), during a live broadcast of their fourth presidential debate on October 21, 1960.
(Image credit: AP Photo)

When were the first debates held?

The seven encounters between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 are widely considered to be the first "presidential" debates — even though they took place two years before the men were actually running for president. The modern tradition of televised presidential head-to-heads began in 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated live on air before an audience of 74 million viewers. Since then, presidential debates have become a quadrennial staple of the political calendar, and are consistently the most-watched campaign events. The ability to perform well in the debates has become a key qualification for the nomination, said political analyst Larry Sabato. "When parties are considering their candidates, they ask, 'Who would look better on TV? Who comes across better? Who can debate better?'" he said. "This has been taken into the calculus."

How did the Nixon-Kennedy debate come about?

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Locked in a dead heat, each of the candidates believed he would benefit from the increased exposure of a televised face-off. Nixon was sure he'd excel, having successfully debated Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on TV in Moscow the year before. He was badly mistaken. The TV cameras loved Kennedy's good looks and dynamic manner, but were cruel to Nixon, revealing his heavy 5 o'clock shadow, sweaty upper lip, and pasty pallor. It didn't help that the Republican, who was recovering from an illness at the time, wore powder makeup that melted under the studio lights. Upon seeing Nixon on television, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley reportedly said, "My God, they've embalmed him before he even died." Radio listeners declared Nixon the winner, but the television images damned him. "The mushrooming TV audience saw [Nixon] as a truthless used-car salesman," wrote Hunter S. Thompson, "and they voted accordingly." Kennedy won the election by just 119,000 votes out of 69 million cast. It would be 16 years before another televised presidential debate was held.

Why the long gap?

Many assume that Nixon's disastrous experience made presidential candidates wary of squaring off on TV, but the truth is more complicated. To clear the way for the 1960 debate, television executives had persuaded Congress to suspend the Federal Communications Commission's rule on equal broadcasting time for all candidates, so Kennedy and Nixon could debate without the presence of fringe candidates like Rutherford L. Decker of the Prohibition Party. But Congress refused to grant that exemption again. Broadcasters got around the FCC rule in 1976 by treating the debate as a sponsored news event rather than a public service. The League of Women Voters agreed to act as sponsor that year — and would do so again in 1980 and 1984 — after Gerald Ford challenged Jimmy Carter to a series of debates. The Republican president, 30 points behind in the race, felt it might help him catch up, but he may well have regretted that impulse later on.

Why is that?

The first 1976 debate was hampered by technical difficulties that left both candidates stuck onstage, mute, for 27 minutes while the feed was repaired. But Ford's truly disastrous moment came in the second debate, when in answer to a question, he said, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" — at a time when between 10 and 15 Soviet divisions were based in Poland alone. "This was a very serious mistake that he made," said Carter, in 1989, "and I don't know if the election didn't turn on it."

Did Ford's remark really matter?

The media had a field day with it, but a gaffe by his running mate, Bob Dole, in the vice presidential debate a few weeks later may have had even more impact. Dole characterized World War I, World War II, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam as "Democrat wars." In the wake of that overstep, "I had to try to keep a straight face," recalled his opponent, Walter Mondale. "I think they blew the election right there." But each debate season produces a line that is remembered as a gaffe, whether it's President Carter's admission in 1980 that he let his 13-year-old daughter guide his feelings on nuclear disarmament, or Michael Dukakis's emotionless response in 1988 when asked whether he would support the death penalty for the perpetrator if his wife were raped and murdered. ("No, I don't," he said.) Such mistakes are often credited as turning points in the race — though rarely by the people that made them. "I have to tell you, and maybe I'm just still missing it," Dukakis said, many years later. "I didn't think it was that bad."

Do debates decide elections?

Only rarely. A Gallup study from 2008 found that a good debate performance generally gives a candidate a temporary bump, but no more. The exceptions, Gallup found, were in 1960 and in 2000, when Al Gore's repeated sighs of exasperation caused him to lose ground to George W. Bush. But even if the debates' impact on the race is negligible, many feel they have an insidious impact on politics in general. "If we test presidential candidates by their talents on TV quiz performances," historian Daniel Boorstin predicted in 1962, "we will of course choose presidents for precisely these qualifications."

Making the rules

The League of Women Voters was charged with setting the format for the three presidential debates from 1976 to 1984, but often found itself buffeted by candidates' demands. In 1980, Jimmy Carter refused to attend a debate alongside third-party challenger John Anderson, effectively squeezing him out so he could debate Ronald Reagan one-on-one. In 1987, the two parties established the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has set the ground rules ever since. The CPD has resisted the whims of candidates to change the form, venue, and time of debates. But it has been criticized for shutting out smaller political parties, and for softening the debate format to favor speechifying over actual confrontation. "No cross-questions or cross-answers, no rebuttals, no follow-up questions," said civil rights lawyer Connie Rice. "That's not a debate, that's a news conference."

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