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A Brief History of the Modern Presidential Debate

Monday, September 29, 2008

Most Americans may not realize that formal presidential debates are a somewhat recent phenomenon.

Americans today take for granted that every presidential campaign will feature at least three official debates between the candidates. So it came as a surprise last week when John McCain announced that he might skip his first debate with Barack Obama in order to remain on Capitol Hill and negotiate an agreement on financial legislation. In the end, McCain flew down to Mississippi, and the debate went on as planned.

Most Americans may not realize that formal presidential debates are a somewhat recent phenomenon. Such debates were not a standard feature of 20th-century American politics until the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. Even after that, presidential candidates refused to debate at all during the 1964, 1968, and 1972 campaigns.

In 1960, conventional wisdom said that Nixon lost the election at least partly because he lost the first debate (voters who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won, while those who watched it on TV deemed Kennedy the victor). If debates could have such negative consequences, why should the frontrunner bother participating? It was considered a needless risk. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson refused to debate Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. By mid-September of that year, a Gallup poll showed Johnson leading Goldwater by a margin of 65 percent to 29 percent. Not known for his public debating skills, LBJ saw nothing to gain from a debate. It was a shrewd decision: he went on to win the general election by a landslide, capturing over 61 percent of the vote to Goldwater’s 38.5 percent.

Presidential candidates refused to debate at all during the 1964, 1968, and 1972 campaigns.

In 1968, Nixon was the Republican candidate once again. Mindful of his poor performance eight years earlier, he refused to debate Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Nixon was not known for his rhetorical skills, and a mid-September Gallup poll found him leading Humphrey by 43 percent to 34 percent. Much like Johnson in 1964, Nixon felt that a debate would only hurt his candidacy, as it had in 1960. It is impossible to know just how much Nixon’s refusal to debate influenced voters. But the 1968 presidential race became extremely close during its final weeks, and on Election Day Nixon won by a razor-thin margin of 43.4 percent to Humphrey’s 42.7 percent.

Four years later, Nixon refused once again to debate his opponent. This time it was South Dakota Senator George McGovern, a very liberal Democrat who trailed Nixon by 25 percentage points in early September. A debate could only diminish his lead, Nixon reckoned, and he did not wish to present McGovern with such an opportunity. In this case, Nixon’s refusal to debate made no difference to the election outcome, as he wound up trouncing McGovern by a margin of 60.7 percent to 37.5 percent.  

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter refused to attend the first debate, held on September 28, because it included independent candidate John Anderson. The debate went forward, though, with Anderson debating Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. Some news reports suggested that Anderson actually gave a better performance than Reagan. However, since Carter was absent, the TV audience was miniscule.

In 1964 and 1972, Presidents Johnson and Nixon had seen no reason to jeopardize their massive leads by engaging in a debate. But by mid-September 1980, Carter had no such lead; indeed, the polls showed a dead heat, with both Carter and Reagan stuck at 39 percent. The second debate was scheduled for only a week before Election Day. At that point, Reagan was up by 3 points in the polls. Anderson was not invited to participate, and Carter decided to attend. The widespread impression after the debate was that Carter had won. In a post-debate poll, Gallup found that support for Carter had increased to 45 percent while support for Reagan had dropped to 39 percent.

But any advantage Carter may have gained from the debate proved ephemeral. Reagan had done well enough, demonstrating that he could hold his own against the president of the United States. On November 4, 1980, he won the election with 50.7 percent of the vote to Carter’s 41 percent. From that point on, voters became so accustomed to the official presidential debates that no candidate could afford to opt out.

Jessica Leval is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image by The Bergman Group/Darren Wamboldt/Shutterstock.

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