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Lincoln-Douglas Debate, 1858
Politics and Economy:
Election 2004
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The History of Presidential Debates: Before Television

There's nothing that requires candidates for the U.S. presidency to debate or to have any kind of face-to-face discussion during election years, but in the last few decades, the American voters have become quite familiar with them. In fact, since 1976, the major presidential candidates have debated every election year, and their running-mates every election year with the exception of 1980. But what about the role of political debate in 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. (Read more about the history of media and politics.)

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. As history professor and author David Greenberg wrote, echoing sociologist Michael Schudson,
...people assembled more for amusement than political education. Moreover, while Lincoln and Douglas sparred with intelligence and panache over weighty issues (mainly slavery), they also stooped to ad hominem barbs and pandered to the entertainment-hungry crowd.

Even though the debates attracted national attention, they did not lead to a demand for more candidate debates, and it would be years since political debates would make history again.

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 — or more aptly, ear — 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 debate was not held just days before the Oregon primary, and 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.

Read about the role of televised debates in elections from 1960 to the present.

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

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