During presidential elections in the United States, it has become customary for the main candidates (almost always the candidates of the two largest parties, currently the Democratic Party and the Republican Party) to engage in a debate. The topics discussed in the debate are often the most controversial issues of the time, and arguably elections have been nearly decided by these debates (e.g., Nixon vs. Kennedy).
Presidential debates are held late in the election cycle, after the political parties have nominated their candidates. The candidates meet in a large hall, often at a university, before an audience of citizens. The formats of the debates have varied, with questions sometimes posed from one or more journalist moderators and in other cases members of the audience. Between 1988 and 2000, the formats have been governed in detail by secret memoranda of understanding (MOU) between the two major candidates; an MOU for 2004 was also negotiated, but unlike the earlier agreements it was jointly released by the two candidates.
Debates are broadcast live on television and radio. The first debate for the 1960 election drew over 66 million viewers out of a population of 179 million, making it one of the most-watched broadcasts in U.S. television history. The 1980 debates drew 80 million viewers out of a 226 million. By 2000, about 46 million viewers out of a population of 280 million watched the first debate, with ten million fewer watching the subsequent debates that year. In 2004, 62.5 million people watched the first debate, while 43.6 million watched the vice-presidential debate.
The famed series of seven debates in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen Douglas for U.S. Senate were true, face-to-face debates, with no moderator; the candidates took it in turns to open each debate with a one-hour speech, then the other candidate had an hour and a half to rebut, and finally the first candidate closed the debate with a half-hour response. Douglas was later re-elected to the Senate by the Illinois legislature. Lincoln and Douglas were both nominated for president in 1860 (by the Republicans and Northern Democrats, respectively), and their earlier debates helped define their respective positions in that election, but they did not meet during the Presidential campaign.
In 1948, a radio debate was held in Oregon between Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen, Republican primary candidates for president. The Democrats followed suit in 1956, with a presidential primary debate between Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver. Holocaust survivor and naturalized citizen Fred A. Kahn, then a University of Maryland student and Vice-President of its International Club, proposed modern presidential debates. The press wires carried his proposal nationwide. The proposal was endorsed by Eleanor Roosevelt and Maryland Governor Theodore McKeldin. The Student Government Association Council of the University of Maryland then invited both candidates to debate at the University of Maryland. In August 1956 the Baltimore Sun wrote an article with the headline "Immigrant Urges Presidential Debates." Both chairperson of both parties were contacted and considered the suggestion. Four years later the first televised debates (the Kennedy-Nixon debates) were held.
The first general election presidential debate was held on September 26, 1960, between U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, in Chicago at the studios of CBS' WBBM-TV.
Televised on all networks, Kennedy is generally considered to have won the debate. Nixon appeared worse than Kennedy on television, with poor makeup, a haggard appearance (due to a knee injury and hospitalization earlier in the month), and a gray suit which blended into the backdrop of the set). The televised debates were thought to be the difference in what was an extremely close election.
No general election debates at all were held for the elections of 1964, 1968 and 1972, although intra-party debates were held during the primaries between Democrats Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and between Democrats George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey in 1972.
It was not until 1976 that a second series of televised presidential debates was held during the general election campaign season. On September 23, 1976, Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter and Republican incumbent, President Gerald Ford agreed to 3 debates (one on domestic issues, one on foreign policy, and one on any topic) on television before studio audiences. A single vice presidential debate was also held that year between Democratic Senator Walter Mondale and Republican Senator Bob Dole.
The dramatic effect of televised presidential debates was demonstrated not only in 1960 but again in the 1976 debates between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Ford had already cut into Carter's large lead in the polls, and was generally viewed as having won the first debate on domestic policy. Polls released after this first debate indicated the race was even. However, in the second debate on foreign policy, Ford made what was widely viewed as a major blunder when he said "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." After this, Ford's momentum stalled, and Carter won a very close election.
Debates were a major factor again in 1980. Going into the debate, Ronald Reagan had a narrow lead over Jimmy Carter in a race considered "too close to call." Reagan, with years of experience in front of a camera as an actor, came across much better than Carter and was judged by voters to have won the debate by a wide margin. This translated into Reagan turning a close election into a landslide victory.
Since 1976, each presidential election has featured a series of vice presidential debates. Vice presidential debates have been held regularly since 1984. Vice Presidential debates have been largely uneventful and have historically had little impact on the election. Perhaps the most memorable moment in a Vice Presidential debate came in the 1988 debate between Republican Dan Quayle and Democrat Lloyd Bentsen. Quayle's selection by George H.W. Bush was widely criticized; one reason being his relative lack of experience. In the debate, Quayle attempted to ease this fear by stating that he had as much experience as John Kennedy did when he ran for President in 1960. Democrat Bentsen countered with the now famous statement: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
The year 1992 featured the first debate with a third-party candidate, Billionaire Ross Perot running against President George H. W. Bush and Governor Bill Clinton. In that year, President Bush was criticised for his early hesitation to join the debates with him being alluded to a chicken. Furthermore, he was also criticised for looking at his watch which aides initially said was meant to track if the other candidates were debating within their time limits but ultimately it was revealed that the president indeed was checking how much time was left in the debate.
Washington University in St. Louis has hosted the debates three times (in 1992, 2000, and 2004), more than any other location. The university was also scheduled to host a debate in 1996, but it was later negotiated between the two presidential candidates to reduce the number of debates from three to two. The University hosted the only 2008 Vice Presidential debate, as well.
Some of the debates can feature the candidates standing behind their podiums, or in conference tables with the moderator on the other side. Depending on the agreed format, either the moderator or an audience member can be the one to ask a questions. Typically there are no opening statements, just closing statements.
A coin toss determines who gets to answer the first question and each candidate will get alternate turns. Once a question is asked, the candidate has 2 minutes to answer the question. After this, the opposing candidate has around 1 minute to respond and rebut his arguments. At the moderator's discretion, the discussion of the question may be extended by 30 seconds per candidate.
In recent debates, colored lights resembling traffic lights have been installed to aide the candidate as to the time left with green indicating 30 seconds, yellow indicating 15 seconds and red indicating only 5 seconds are left. If necessary, a buzzer may be used or a flag.
The same year the two major political parties assumed control of organizing presidential debates through the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). The commission has been headed since its inception by former chairs of the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee.
Some have criticized the exclusion of third party and independent candidates as well as the parallel interview format as a minimum of getting 15% in opinion polls is required to be invited. In 2004, the Citizens' Debate Commission (CDC) was formed with the stated mission of returning control of the debates to an independent nonpartisan body rather than a bipartisan body. Nevertheless, the CPD retained control of the debates that year and in 2008.