From 90 Minutes to 90 Seconds: A History of Political Debates

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A composite photo showing Abraham Lincoln (L) and Stephen Douglas.
A composite photo showing Abraham Lincoln (L) and Stephen Douglas.

Presidential debates can sometimes make or break a candidacy, as a sharp zinger or bad gaffe can propel or sink a candidate. Or the candidates may fight to a near-draw, and a debate does not provide a noticeable bump.

The history of political debates goes back to long before the famous first-ever televised presidential debate between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon in 1960.

Perhaps the most famous political debates in U.S. history took place over a century earlier, and didn’t even involve presidential candidates: Incumbent Democrat Stephen Douglas and challenging Republican Abraham Lincoln squared off in a series of seven debates in 1858, in the race for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois.

The main theme of those debates was slavery. Though Lincoln lost that senatorial election, the fame he achieved from that series of debates — and the popularity of a book he published with the transcripts of the debates — propelled him to victory in the presidential election two years later.

The format for the Lincoln-Douglas debates was very different from the format for current debates: In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, one candidate would speak for 60 minutes, the other would speak for 90 minutes, and the first would then speak for 30 minutes. And there was no moderator. Modern-day viewers and commentators often complain about the lack of time allowed for each response or rebuttal (generally in the range of 1–2 minutes) in debates, which results in debates being a series of soundbites rather than substantive responses. Yet one wonders if any but the most serious political pundit today would be willing to sit through a real Lincoln-Douglas debate!

During the mid-1900s, several radio debates were held during presidential primary races, but the first general-election presidential debate was the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960.

Here are highlights from the presidential debates:

1960: Democrat John F. Kennedy versus Republican Richard Nixon was the first presidential debate to be broadcast live on TV. Kennedy was outstanding, looking tanned and fit and putting his charm on display. Nixon, who had been in the hospital just prior to the debate, had a five-o’clock shadow, refused makeup, and was visibly sweating. Though people who listened to the debate on the radio said they thought Nixon did better than Kennedy, the sharper-looking Democrat carried the day with the viewers. It would be 16 years before presidential candidates again dared participate in a public duel.

John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon at the 1960 presidential debate. (AP Photo, File)
Richard M. Nixon (L) and John F. Kennedy at the 1960 presidential debate. (AP Photo, File)

1976: After a successful first debate, incumbent President Gerald Ford got into an undesirable situation during his second debate against his challenger, Democrat Jimmy Carter. In the middle of the Cold War, Ford asserted: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Ford lost the election.

1980: The race between Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan was close. Reagan, an experienced actor looking a lot better before the cameras, convinced the audience with wit and charisma. The question he raised: “Are you better off now than four years ago?” touched a nerve in light of the economic situation at the time. He ousted Carter with just over 50 percent of the vote.

1984: In the second debate between Reagan and Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, the Republican shot off one of the most famous lines in debate history.

Age was seen as a liability for the 73-year-old Reagan, who most viewers thought lost the first debate with Mondale. In the second debate, moderator Henry Trewhitt brought up the age issue, and Reagan was prepared for it.

Trewhitt mentioned how during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy “had to go for days on end with very little sleep.”

“Is there any doubt in your mind,” Trewhitt asked Reagan, “that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”

“Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt,” said Reagan. “And I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The crowd roared, and even Mondale could not contain his laughter.

In an interview years later with John Stossel of the Fox Business Network, Republican political operative Karl Rove described Mondale’s reaction as, “Mondale can’t help himself; he is simultaneously laughing and at the same time knowing, ‘I have just been taken out to the cleaners.’”

Bob Beckel, who was Mondale’s campaign manager, told Stossel that when Reagan uttered that famous line, Beckel turned to his deputy and said, “ ‘This race is over’ … and I walked away. Didn’t listen to the rest of it.”

In the election, Reagan won 525 out of a possible 538 electoral votes.

Ronald Reagan (L) and Walter Mondale at the second 1984 presidential debate, in Kansas City, Mo., on Oct. 21, 1984. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)
Ronald Reagan (L) and Walter Mondale at the second presidential debate in 1984. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)

1988: A statement by Democrat Michael Dukakis was disastrous for the candidate. Asked whether he would support the death penalty in a hypothetical case where his wife was brutally murdered, Dukakis, a long-time opponent of the death penalty, said he would not. He said he saw no evidence that it’s a deterrent and there were more effective ways to deal with violent crime. Viewers saw the answer as both dispassionate and dismissive. He lost to Republican George H.W. Bush.

1992: Incumbent president George H.W. Bush faced not only Democrat Bill Clinton, but also a third candidate, Ross Perot. Bush was criticized for his performance because he kept looking at his watch while the other candidates spoke. He lost the election to Clinton.

1996: There were two TV debates between Bill Clinton and Republican former Senator Bob Dole. Clinton handled the occasions with aplomb and confidence and easily won re-election.

2000: Democratic vice president Al Gore shook his head, sighed and groaned audibly when Republican George W. Bush spoke in the first debate, coming off as condescending. Gore — who most people had assumed would win the debate — was widely seen as having lost it.

Then, in a town-hall debate, as Bush was speaking, Gore walked over to Bush and stood near him, as if to try to intimidate him. Bush gave a small smile and nod to Gore, which underscored what was seen as Gore’s condescension.

Gore won the popular vote but lost the election by five electoral votes.

2004: The TV debate was the undoing of John Kerry’s candidacy. Kerry’s changing position on the war in Iraq came to the forefront and Bush capitalized by portraying Kerry as inconsistent. The voters granted Bush another four years in office.

2008: Three debates were held between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. Obama came across as cool and confident. He defeated McCain in the election.

2012: Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney faced each other in three heated debates. But gaps in Romney’s knowledge about the geographical location of Syria, Iraq and Iran were strikes against him. Obama held steady and won in November.