Politicians have debated each other for well over a century, but the history of presidential debates between two major party candidates is more sporadic, as many early 20th century leaders preferred to make individual speeches rather than square off with their opponents directly.
From the first televised debate in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon to today’s tweetable face-off between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, here are the facts, highlights, blunders, and unforgettable moments of debates throughout history.
Republican Candidates Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen debated to a radio audience of 40 million viewers in 1948. It was the first audio-recorded debate to take place and was said to set the standard for all future presidential debates.
The first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon drew 66.4 million viewers, a record number for its time. The debate was said to impact the decision of many Americans, resulting in an all-time high voter turnout.
- Richard Nixon’s debate appearance was historically bad. He refused to wear makeup and was ill and exhausted on stage. In comparison, John F. Kennedy was glowing. Even though the candidates presented similar agendas, it was due to Nixon’s perspiration, poor appearance, and shifty stage presence that Kennedy won the debate by a landslide. Interestingly, those listening to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won, thus demonstrating the power of visuals on public perception.
- An equal-time rule was in place in 1960, meaning that all opposing political candidates were to be granted equal radio/television time if they requested it. Television executives lobbied to Congress to temporarily suspend this law in 1960 so that CBS could air the debate between Kennedy and Nixon, without any other candidates participating.
- In the third debate between Kennedy and Nixon, the candidates were filmed in two different time zones (Kennedy in New York City and Nixon in Hollywood).
Republican-Democrat debates did not take place in 1964, 1968, or 1972. Nixon refused to debate in 1968 against Hubert Humphrey (potentially still feeling the sting from his debate with Kennedy).
The next major televised debate was in 1976, 16 years after the Kennedy-Nixon debate, between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.
- During the debate, the live feed cut out while Carter was speaking. The candidates had no idea until they were informed. They then waited for 27 minutes until they fixed the live feed, just in time for closing statements.
- Ford stumbled in the debate when he uttered the factually incorrect line, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” a statement that would hurt his campaign and lose him the election.
The first vice presidential debates occurred in 1976, but they didn’t become a regular occurrence until 1984.
In their 1980 debate, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan set the record for the largest live-TV audience with 80 million viewers.
- Ronald Reagan’s acting background served him well during debates and his time as president. He was famous for his one-liners, notably asking, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” to insinuate that Carter’s previous years in office had led America astray. He went on to win 51 percent of the popular vote.
- Reagan’s administration somehow acquired Jimmy Carter’s debate briefing papers prior to their debate, in a scandal known as Debategate. No one knows whether the papers contained important memos or just routine information, but it wasn’t public knowledge that Reagan had the papers in his possession until 1983.
- Reagan used humor as an effective form of rhetoric in his debate with Walter Mondale. At the age of 73, Reagan often got called out for being older. When asked if he was too old to be President, he quipped, “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.” His response elicited chuckles from the crowd along with his debate opponent.
- In 1992, for the first time, three presidential candidates debated: Governor Bill Clinton, President H.W. Bush, and independent candidate, Ross Perot.
- It was also the first ever town hall style debate (where questions come from members of the audience). Bush’s discomfort was obvious, as he repeatedly checked his watch during the debate. Clinton took advantage of this opportunity to approach the crowd, which showed him to be an empathetic leader.
- The debate in 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush once again proved that public perception is everything. Although Gore was predicted to be the winner, he quickly lost the public’s trust and liking by sighing whenever Bush talked—body language that was a major turn-off for many voters.
- The 2008 debate between Democrat candidates Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton sparked a new trend that would define today’s races, which is the role of technology in elections. YouTube users submitted questions for the candidates to answer, involving citizens in the debate through modern means.
- Presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump drew in approximately 84 million viewers during their first debate, breaking the long-standing record that Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter put in place in 1980.
Oratory Battle for Office
After the first live debate between Kennedy and Nixon, presidential races have never been the same. Television invited presidential candidates into America’s living rooms, where they could get up close and personal with families across the country.
Today, technology has brought candidates and citizens closer than ever. The public can follow their party’s nominee around the clock, add to the political conversation, and even live stream debates online.
As we approach the last debate of this year, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be put under the spotlight as they make their final case to Americans in hopes of winning the popular vote in November.
What was the most memorable moment from this year’s presidential debates?