7 Interesting Facts About US Presidential Debates That You Didn’t Know

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Ronald Reagan behind a podium debating Walter Mondale also behind a podium at the second presidential debate.
President Ronald Reagan and Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale, at the second presidential debate in Kansas City, Missouri on October 21st, 1984. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 The U.S. Presidential debates are the marquee event of the American campaign season. Besides the Super Bowl, they are the most-watched television event of their years, often doubling the viewership of the Academy Awards. But although televised debates are considered a critical element of each election year and a national pastime, their status as a regular event is more recent than you might think. Here are seven interesting facts about the U.S. Presidential debates that you probably didn’t know.

Two photographs of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858/1859. The year of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Abraham Lincoln (left) and Stephen A. Douglas (right) of the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. The Lincoln photograph was taken in 1858, and the Douglas photograph was taken in 1859, so they both would have looked similar to this at the time of the debates.

1. The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates were not Presidential debates

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas publicly debated seven times over the course of four months. They sparked a national conversation, with wall-to-wall press coverage that spread across the country. Today these are known as The Great Debates of 1858 and live in the American political imagination. But they are often misperceived as Presidential debates when in fact they were competing against each other for Illinois’s seat in the United States Senate.

A snippet of the Lincon-Douglas Galesburg debate 1994 reenactment on October 8th, 1994 in Galesburg, Illinois.

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2. These debates were re-enacted in 1994

The Lincoln-Douglas debates were not technically Presidential debates, but as fate would have it, Lincoln and Douglas faced off again two years later in 1860 – but this time for President. The issues of their Presidential campaign were largely the same as their Senate campaign, so The Great Debates of 1858 serve as a set of proxy Presidential debates. They were re-enacted on location in their entirety in 1994 and you can watch these re-enactments on CSPAN.

Eleanor Roosevelt facing off against Senator Margaret Chase Smith on the program Face the Nation in 1956.
Former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt (left), and United States Senator, Margaret Chase Smith (right), on the “Face The Nation” television programme in Washington D.C. in November 1956. National Archives // Public Domain

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3. The first televised Presidential debates aired in 1956

Although the first televised debate to feature Presidential candidates took place in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the first televised Presidential debate had already occurred four years earlier. In 1956, two days before the election, Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Chase Smith debated on live television. 

Roosevelt argued for the Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson and Smith argued for the Republican nominee and subsequent election winner Dwight Eisenhower. The debate grew heated enough that Roosevelt refused to shake hands afterward.

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in front of an audience and behind podiums and the second presidential debate during the 1960 Presidential election campaign.
Presidential candidates John F. Kennedy (left) and Richard Nixon (right) at the 2nd of 4 Presidential debates for the 1960 presidential election. The debates took place on October 7th, 1960 in Washington, D.C. at NBC’s WRC-TV studios. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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4. It is a myth that Nixon defeated Kennedy among radio listeners

The first televised debates between presidential candidates took place in 1960. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were watched by one-third of all Americans during the first of their four debates, and Kennedy’s superior appearance and comfort with the then-new technology of television was widely noted. To many, Nixon appeared sick, unkempt, and uncomfortable, and the debates are widely credited with opening up a lead for Kennedy during a previously neck-and-neck campaign. 

But the idea that Kennedy’s debate victory was mostly due to his appearance rather than his performance is often spread by the myth that Nixon was considered the winner of the debates by those who only listened by radio. This is unproven, as there was no polling done exclusively among radio listeners after the debates. 

Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford debating in front of an audience at the first of 3 Ford-Carter presidential debates.
President Gerald Ford (right) debating Democrat candidate, Jimmy Carter, on the 23rd of September 1976 at the 1st of 3 Ford-Carter Debates. The debate took place at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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5. Debates did not become a regular feature of Presidential elections until 1976

Although the debates between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960 were considered a major success, the next Presidential debates were not until 1976. Lyndon B. Johnson refused to participate in 1964, and Richard Nixon – perhaps remembering his loss to Kennedy – also refused to participate in both 1968 and 1972. It turned out they made the right choice, as each won their elections.

The Presidential debates made a comeback in 1976, when the Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter squared off against the Republican incumbent President Gerold Ford. These debates were organized by the League of Women Voters, as the Commission on Presidential Debates was not established until 1987. 

The Vice-Presidential debates made their debut in 1976 and would also become an election year staple, although their viewership is always lower than the Presidential debates. The debate between Walter Mondale and Bob Dole – who would both later become their parties’ Presidential nominees – was viewed by about 40 million people, which was 20 to 30 million fewer viewers than the debates between Carter and Ford.

The Third 1992 US Presidential Debate including 3rd-party candidate, Ross Perot.

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6. The Commission on Presidential Debates was established by the Democratic and Republican parties and it shows

Since 1987, the debates have been organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates. This Commission was jointly established by the Democratic and Republican political parties, and although it is officially nonpartisan, the participants of the debates are determined by the political parties. Only one of the nine sets of debates since 1988 has featured a third party participant. This was in 1992 when businessman Ross Perot ran as an independent.

Although Perot had been the frontrunner earlier in the year, by the time of the debates in October he was a distant third. He performed strongly in the debates, with many considering him to be the overall winner, and finished with 19% of the popular vote, although he did not win a single state. 

When he ran again in 1996, the Republican nominee Bob Dole refused to participate in the debates if Perot was allowed to be there, as it was commonly believed that Perot siphoned votes away from the Republicans in 1992, although statistical analysis now suggests otherwise. This controversial exclusion caused the Commission on Presidential Debates to implement clear standards for debate participation. In order to be included in the debate, a candidate must have received at least 15% support in five or more national polls. But these polls often do not feature any third-party candidates, making it difficult for them to qualify

A roll of I Voted stickers with the American flag on them.
“I Voted” Stickers. Element5 Digital // Unsplash

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7. The debates are not as important as they seem

Despite massive viewership, extensive coverage, and endless analysis, the influence of the Presidential debates on voters is usually negligible. The 1960 debate between Nixon and Kennedy is an exception to this due to its novelty as the first televised debate between Presidential candidates, but since then research has found that the debates function as entertainment rather than persuasion. 

Most voters have already decided who they will vote for before the debates, and few make their decision based primarily on the debates. At this point, undecided voters are most likely to be persuaded through personal interactions with friends, family, or campaign workers. As our lives become more and more saturated with news and information, there is little left to discover by the time the candidates are on the debate stage.

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