When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas faced off against each other in the 1860 Presidential election the American people knew more about the candidates than they ever had before. Two years before they had competed for election to the Senate (Douglas won) and as part of that campaign they’d done something new and exciting. Illinois had nine Senate districts and they’d both already spoken in Chicago and Springfield, but they decided to hold public debates in each of the remaining districts. Unusually for political debates these drew in big audiences; slavery was the hot political issue at the time and people flocked in to hear the candidates’ opposing views. After the election Lincoln had the texts of all the debates published as a book, which was hugely popular and helped win him the Republican nomination for the 1860 election. As the American people prepared to vote they were able to read what their two candidates had said to each other about the issues of the day, and that helped them make their choice. Lincoln won.
Perhaps Republican hopeful Wendell Wilkie had the Lincoln-Douglas debates ñ and the GOP victory they contributed to – in mind in 1940, when he challenged Franklin D. Roosevelt to a debate in the run-up to the election. If so it seems Roosevelt hadn’t forgotten either, because he declined.
In 1948 Republican primary candidates Thomas E. Dewey and Harold Stassen faced each other in a radio debate. It wasn’t until two elections later that the Democratic Party decided to do the same, but when Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver debated in 1956 it generated a lot of interest in the idea. Maryland seems to have been a hotbed of enthusiasm for a debate; the University of Maryland invited both presidential candidates to a face-to-face showdown, and the Baltimore Sun ran an editorial supporting the idea. Eleanor Roosevelt threw her weight behind it, too, and there were discussions about it in both parties. The debate never happened in the end; the time wasn’t quite right yet. It wasn’t long in coming though.
One of the highlights of the 1960 presidential election was a series of debates between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard M. Nixon. This time there was a new element ñ television. A third of the US population tuned in to see the first debate, one of the highest audience shares in history. With images of the candidates to go with their words people had a whole new set of cues to pick up on, and Kennedy had grasped that. Nixon, apparently, hadn’t. Kennedy spent the weekend before the first debate hole dup in a hotel with his advisers, practicing how he’d answer difficult questions. Nixon, despite suffering from flu, was out campaigning. During the debate itself Kennedy kept his smile fixed firmly on the camera while Nixon looked at the reporters who were asking the questions. To the viewers it gave him a shifty look, with his eyes never meeting the gaze of the camera. Even his light gray suit was a mistake ñ it emphasized his pale complexion. The results were dramatic ñ after that debate Kennedy overcame the more experienced Nixon’s lead, and was the front runner for the rest of the campaign. It’s widely believed that those who watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy was the winner, while those who listened on the radio felt Nixon was the more competent and trustworthy candidate.
Maybe the obvious power of TV debates frightened off presidential hopefuls after that, because it didn’t happen again until 1976. Jimmy Carter and incumbent Gerald Ford agreed to a series of three debates that year. Carter had started the campaign with a big lead, but Ford was steadily cutting into it and after the first debate polls showed he had drawn level. Then, under pressure in the second debate, he claimed the Soviet Union didn’t dominate Eastern Europe and never would as long as he was president. That was seen as showing both complacency and a poor grasp of the facts, because there were a million Soviet troops in Eastern Europe at the time, and it put many voters off. Carter won the election and the debates have often been credited for his victory.
It didn’t go so well for Carter in 1980. His opponent this time was Ronald Reagan, who had a long acting career behind him and knew exactly how to win over a TV audience. The fact that his campaign team had managed to get hold of Carter’s briefing notes for the debates probably didn’t hurt, but with Carter’s administration in trouble and Reagan’s experience in front of a camera the outcome was never really in doubt.
Since then debates have been a regular feature of presidential elections. Vice presidential candidates have had their own debates since 1984, although these haven’t had much effect on the campaigns. The first time a third party candidate took part was in 1992, when Ross Perot debated President Bush and Bill Clinton. The 1992 campaign is also noteworthy because Bush was reluctant to take part in a debate. Unfortunately for him it had now become an expected part of the campaign and he was widely ridiculed for trying to back out, and finally agreed. In the event most people thought he’d performed poorly, including looking at his watch as if anxious for it to be finished. Perhaps that contributed to Clinton’s victory.
Until 1988 presidential debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters, but they finally withdrew their support in protest at the parties attempting to control the format too rigidly. They’re now run by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan nonprofit set up by the two main parties. This has brought some criticism too, as it’s very hard for third party and independent candidates to take part unless they attract at least 15 per cent of the popular vote, and there’s pressure to make the debates more diverse. Still, even in their current format they’re useful. Presidential election campaigns in the USA are extremely long ñ they run for almost a year, compared to a maximum of five weeks in the UK ñ and voter apathy is a real issue. A high profile debate gives the public a chance to see the candidates away from the often byzantine dealings of the primaries, so it’s good news that they seem to have become a permanent feature of the political landscape.