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Do Debates Matter?
Lincoln-Douglas Debates, WPA
January 4, 2008

It is a fair question to ask: Do the debates really matter? After years of declining viewership the debates are making a comeback. In 1960, over 66 million people watched the first televised debate out of a total population of 178 million. In 1980 more than 80 million watched the debate between Reagan and Carter. But then as the population swelled to more than 294 million, the numbers slipped, with only 46.6 million watching the first debate in 2000, and nearly ten million less watching the second and third debates. But in 2004 the numbers for the first debate between George Bush and John Kerry had a viewership of 62.4 million.

But now these traditional count methods can't begin to give an accurate picture of the debates effect on the public. According to THE NEW YORK TIMES, "Experts say that most people watch debates at the same time as they watch other shows, pay the bills, surf the Internet and basically multi-task their way through the evening." And, with the opportunity to re-watch the action online at any time — the debates have a whole new lifespan.

In 2004, Bill Moyers talked with George Farah, then Executive Director of Open Debates, a group dedicated to reforming the debate process. Among their complaints: Moderators can't ask follow-up questions, many important issues are never raised, and credible third-party candidates are excluded from the proceedings altogether. In 2004, the efforts of the group and allies did gain some reform from the Commission on Presidential Debates — including different moderators for each debate. And now, with the advent of Internet debates, some critics say the field is much more level. However, the major networks can still exclude candidates who don't meet minimum poll numbers — and questions are still vetted by presenters.

Find out more about the history of debates and get debate-watching tips below. Do the debates matter to you? Are your questions being asked? Tell us on the blog.

Debate History

Before radio and TV, debates didn't play much of a role in presidential campaigns. In the early days of American history, any campaigning or direct appeal for votes met with disdain from the public. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that candidates "were supposed to play coy, obeying a call to service from their country, saving their energies for the task of government." Since newspapers were run by the political parties and not expected to report objectively, the bulk of electioneering happened through those channels, as well as pamphlets and occasional public meetings.

That all changed with the 1858 U.S. senatorial race in Illinois between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Only after Lincoln followed Douglas around the state, making comments from the audience at Douglas' public appearances, did Douglas agree to a series of seven debates. The first political debates with national significance, and the most famous of the pre-broadcast era, they were a major success with the public, as media expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson has noted:

They were orderly and closely attended. Both advocates were serious and articulate. They addressed themselves to a discreet set of political concerns. The debates advanced the issues, illuminating the areas of both agreement and disagreement.
However, at the time, U.S. senators weren't elected by a popular vote, as they are today. They were elected by state legislatures. So while tens and thousands of citizens traveled to see the debates, in the end they couldn't vote for either candidate.

The most vocal advocates for public debates over the next 100 years were political underdogs looking for the increased exposure such events would bring. When, in 1940, Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie challenged Franklin Delano Roosevelt to debate the "fundamental issues," his challenge was dismissed by Roosevelt and the press as a media stunt. Four years later, in 1944, the Republicans bought time on commercial radio directly following an address by Roosevelt in an attempt to capture the attention of the American public.

The next election year brought political debates back into the public eye as a debate between two candidates for the Republican presidential nomination — Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey — was hosted by radio station KEX-ABC in Portland, Oregon and broadcast across the nation. The was limited to a single issue: outlawing the Communist party in the United States. Between 40 and 80 million Americans listened to the hour-long radio debate.

Although there were nationally televised debates during primaries in 1952 and 1956, the first televised general election debate was between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. The debate came about because both candidates saw the advantage to using television, because networks were eager to prove how civic-minded they could be, and because debates were seen as part of a larger campaign reform movement.

Also, for that year only, Congress suspended the equal time provision of the Communications Act of 1934, which stated that a broadcasting station permitting a candidate use of its facilities had to grant the same opportunity to all other candidates, minor ones included.

The next several elections went by without any presidential debates, in part because the 1934 Communications Act was still in effect, and networks were reluctant to turn over air time to minor candidates. In 1970, Congress passed a repeal of the equal time provision, but Nixon vetoed the bill. Then two years later, the Senate again attempted to repeal the equal time provision but was deterred by the House because the bill would have included congressional campaigns. This was an unpopular prospect among House members who wanted to avoiding debating their challengers.

In 1975, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created a loophole so broadcast networks could get around the equal time provision. It ruled that as long as debates were "bona fide news events" sponsored by some organization other than the networks, they would be exempt from equal time requirements.

The second televised debate pitted President Gerald Ford against Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976. This debate is remembered for a remark by Ford that was played up by the press as a major blunder; Carter benefited when Ford said, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."

The 1976, 1980, and 1984 debates were sponsored by the non-partisan League of Women Voters. The League worked on behalf of the public by openly pushing for lively debate formats and the inclusion of third-party and independent candidates.

When, in 1980, President Carter refused to participate in a debate that included both Republican challenger Ronald Reagan and independent John Anderson, the League insisted on Anderson's inclusion and proceeded to hold a televised Reagan-Anderson debate without Carter. Ronald Reagan was able to use the first debate to outline his agenda to a national audience, and many believe he could not have won the presidency without the debates.

In 1984, the three debates featured a moderator and three panelists who would ask both candidates the same questions. The Reagan and Mondale campaigns asked for an unprecedented degree of control over the debates — going so far as to veto nearly a hundred proposed panelists. The League of Women Voters blasted both campaigns publicly, and for the second debate that year, the candidates didn't reject a single panelist.

The '84 debates were notable for another, more memorable reason. This was the election in which President Reagan, then 73 and potentially deemed too old by some voters for re-election, brought down the house by saying, "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." From that moment on, his age was never an issue in the campaign.

In 1988, the political parties wanted more control over the debates while the League insisted on protecting what they considered to be the debates' integrity. The Democratic and Republican parties signed a secretly negotiated "memorandum of understanding" that dictated everything from selection of the panelists, to the makeup of the audience, to banning follow-up questions. When they had agreed on all the details, the campaigns presented the document to the League. Accusing the two major parties of perpetrating a "fraud on the American voter," the League exposed the secret memo to the public. The struggle ended with the League of Women Voters withdrawing as sponsor of the general election debates, refusing to give its name to an event "controlled and scripted by the candidates' campaign organizations." The result: the parties got the kind of debates they wanted when the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a nonprofit organization created by members of both major parties took over the management of the debates.

In 1992, independent candidate H. Ross Perot was invited to join in the presidential debates. While George Farah comments that "Perot was universally considered the winner of two [out of three] presidential debates," Bill Clinton eased comfortably into the new "town hall" format in which "ordinary citizens" asked the questions. Clinton was skilled at empathizing with audience concern over economy and health care, and went on to win the presidency. But Perot climbed from 7% in pre-debate polls to 19% on Election Day, the "largest demonstrable gain for any candidate in the history of presidential debates." Perhaps as a result of Perot's strong showing in the 1992 debates, he was excluded when he ran again in 1996.

In 2000, the CPD announced a high threshold, 15% in pre-debate polling, for third-party and independent candidate participation. Even though five third-party candidates were on enough state ballots to win an electoral college majority, they were all excluded from the debates.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has already announced its debate schedule for 2008. Check out their Web site for further information.

Sources: CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR; CNN/TIME All Politics; The Commission on Presidential Debates; SLATE; ThisNation; WASHINGTON POST

Published on January 4, 2008

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References and Reading:
Commission on Presidential Debates
The Web site for the official organizer of the debates contains a wealth of historical information, transcripts, video and even reenactments. The site also contains a list of the 2008 venues and eventually will contain a list of moderators and debate rules.

CNN/YouTube Debate: GOP
Review the candidates' responses to the chosen questions, and also add your own video response.

CNN/YouTube Debate: Democrats
Review the candidates' responses to the chosen questions, and also add your own video response.

MSNBC Debates
MSNBC's debate hub includes transcripts, video and analysis.

Times Topics: Debates
Among the resources on the NEW YORK TIMES debate hub is a fascinating chart showing how many times each candidate, and party, mention key terms from Iraq to immigration. To date, Democrats talk much more about President Bush than Republicans — who refer most often to President Reagan.

Also This Week:

The Republican candidate on the race and the media.

The Democratic candidate on the race and the media.

Campaign analyst Kathleen Hall Jamieson on life after Iowa.

>Politics 2.0 and Campaign analysis tools

Get history of presidential debates and then tell us if they matter to you on the blog.

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