The History of Presidential Debates: The Televised Years
(Continued from The History of Presidential Debates: Before Television)
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.
Read debate-watching tips and learn about movements to reform the presidential debate process through education and action.
Sources: CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR; CNN/TIME All Politics; The Commission on Presidential Debates; SLATE; ThisNation; WASHINGTON POST