History Lesson: Past Debates

— Although they were established just 40 years ago, presidential debates are now a major feature of the election season. Take a look back at the highlights (and lowlights) of every presidential and vice-presidential debate since 1960.

1960 Election

Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy challenged Republican Vice President Richard Nixon, who was leading the polls, to a series of debates. The four, one-hour debates were the first ever presidential debates. The famed 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas occurred during the Illinois senatorial campaign.

In an echo of this year’s rhetoric, in one of the debates against Kennedy, Nixon said he was “very proud that President Eisenhower restored dignity and decency and frankly good language to the conduct of the presidency of the United States.”

September 26, 1960

Who: Sen. John F. Kennedy, Democrat and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Republican Where: Chicago, Ill. Moderator: Howard Smith as moderator, plus a panel including Sander Vanocur, Charles Warren, Stuart Novins and Bob Fleming. Format: 8-minute opening statements; 2 ½-minute responses; optional rebuttal; 3-minute closing statements. Broadcaster: Networks Rating: 77 million viewers (60 percent of all households) In the first debate, Nixon learned the hard way about the importance of how one looks on television. His haggard appearance, compared to the telegenic Kennedy’s, caused some callers — including his own mother — to inquire about his health. However, the oft-cited “fact” that those who listened to the debate over radio rated Nixon the winner, while TV viewers rated Kennedy the winner, is based on “thin” evidence that’s still debated by scholars.

October 7, 1960

Who: Kennedy and Nixon Where: Washington, D.C. Moderator: Frank McGee as moderator, plus a panel including Paul Niven, Edward Morgan, Alvin Spivak and Harold Levy. Format: No opening statements; each candidate questioned; optional rebuttal Broadcaster: Networks Rating: 61.9 million viewers

October 13, 1960

Who: Kennedy and Nixon Where: Nixon in Hollywood, Calif., and Kennedy in New York City Moderator: Bill Shadel as moderator, plus a panel including Frank McGee, Charles Van Fremd, Douglass Carter and Roscoe Drummond. Format: No opening statements; 2 ½-minute responses; 1 ½-minute rebuttals; no closing statements. Broadcaster: Networks Ratings: 63.7 million viewers

October 21, 1960

Who: Kennedy and Nixon Where: New York City Moderator: Quincy Howe as moderator, plus a panel including Frank Singiser, John Edwards, Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor. Format: 8-minute opening statements; 2 ½-minute responses; 1 ½-minute rebuttals; 3-minute closing statements. Broadcaster: Networks Ratings: 61 percent of households. This debate focused exclusively on foreign policy.

1976 Elections

(No presidential debates in 1964, 1968, or 1972)

The 1976 debates were the first televised debates to feature an incumbent president, President Ford. The debates between Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter were seen by more people than the 1960 debates. Seven in 10 adults tuned in to the first two debates of 1976 and six in 10 adults watched the third.

September 23, 1976

Who: President Gerald Ford, a Republican, and Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. Where: Philadelphia, Pa. Moderator: Edwin Newman as moderator, plus a panel including Frank Reynolds, James Gannon and Elizabeth Drew. Format: No opening statements; 3-minute responses; 2-minute rebuttals; 3-minute closing statements. Sponsor/Broadcasters: League of Women Voters (LWV); Networks Ratings: 69.7 million viewers

The topic of the first debate was “Domestic Issues and Economic Policy.” The debate is best remembered for its mysterious loss of the audio signal with nine minutes remaining. That technical failure caused a 28-minute delay in the debate and an awkward silence between the two candidates as millions watched on TV.

October 6, 1976

Who: Ford and Carter Where: San Francisco, Calif. Moderator: Pauline Frederick as moderator, plus a panel including Max Frankel, Henry Trewitt, and Richard Valeriani. Format: No opening statements; 3-minutes responses; 2-minute rebuttals; 3-minute closing statements. Sponsor/Broadcasters: LWV; Networks Ratings: 63.9 million viewers The second debate focused on “Foreign Policy and Defense.” The big moment of this debate was Ford’s assertion that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” This major blunder by Ford halted his momentum in the campaign just as he was catching up to Carter. Pollster George H. Gallup, Jr., claimed this was the “decisive event” which caused the sitting president to lose the election. Although surveys taken immediately after the debate showed voters believed Ford had won the event by almost a 2-1 margin, once the media disseminated the news that Ford’s Eastern Europe statement was wrong, public opinion reversed almost immediately.

October 15, 1976

Who: Vice-Presidential Debate — Republican candidate Robert J. Dole and Democratic candidate Walter Mondale. Where: Houston, Texas Moderator: James Hoge as moderator, plus a panel including Hal Bruno, Marilyn Berger, and Walter Mears. Format: 2-minute opening statements; 2 ½-minute responses; 2 ½-minute rebuttals; 3-minute closing statements. Sponsor/Broadcasters: LWV; Networks Ratings: 43.2 million viewers

Going into the vice-presidential debate, Dole said that people would rather watch a Friday night high school football game than watch the vice-presidential candidates face off. The debate was highly partisan, and some felt Dole’s acerbic style hurt his ticket.

Ocotober 22, 1976

Who: Ford and Carter Where: College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, Va. Moderator: Barbara Walters as moderator, plus a panel including Joseph Kraft, Robert Maynard and Jack Nelson. Format: 2 ½-minute responses; 2-minute rebuttals; 2-minute closing statements Sponsor/Broadcasters: LWV; Networks Ratings: 62.7 million viewers

The third presidential debate was open to all issues and subjects; the consensus was that Carter won.

1980 Election

In 1980, President Carter declined to take part in any debate that included third-party candidate John Anderson, so the first debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters took place only between Anderson and Republican Ronald Reagan. The second debate took place between Carter and Reagan; Anderson by that point no longer qualified for inclusion in the debates, according to the League’s criteria.

September 21, 1980

Who: John Anderson, an Independent, and Republican Ronald Reagan. Where: Baltimore, Md. Moderator: Bill Moyers as moderator, plus a panel including Carol Loomis, Daniel Greenberg, Charles Cordray, Lee May, Jane Bryant and Soma Golden. Format: 2 ½-minute responses; 1 ¼-minute rebuttals; 3-minute closing statements. Sponsors: League of Women Voters, with NBC and CBS.

October 28, 1980

Who: Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Reagan Where: Cleveland, Ohio Moderator: Howard Smith as moderator, plus a panel including Marvin Stone, Harry Ellis, William Hilliard and Barbara Walters. Format: 2-minute responses; 1-minute rebuttals; 3-minute closing statements. Sponsors: LWV, with ABC, NBC and CBS Ratings: 80.6 million viewers (highest ever)

During the Carter-Reagan debate, Reagan uttered the now-famous “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Carter emphasized arms control and accused Reagan of “insensitivity” on domestic economic issues, and of “belligerence” in military policy. Reagan said that he wanted to “take government off the backs” of the people by reducing taxes and government spending. The only exchange between Reagan and Carter proved to be the highest rated presidential debate in history according to Nielson Media Research.

1984 Election

President Ronald Reagan went into the 1984 debates with a substantial lead over his opponent former-Vice President Walter Mondale.

October 7, 1984

Who: Reagan and Mondale Where: Louisville, Ky. Moderator: Barbara Walters as moderator, plus a panel including James Wieghart, Diane Sawyer and Fred Barnes. Format: 2 ½-minute responses; 1-minute rebuttals; 4-minute closing statements Sponsors: League of Women Voters, ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS Ratings: 65.1 million viewers

Reviews of Reagan’s first debate performance in Louisville concluded that Mondale performed better than the seemingly uncomfortable and nervous incumbent. Voter surveys conducted immediately after the debate found that Mondale either had an edge or the two candidates were basically tied. But that changed dramatically the next day, when news outlets reported that a Michigan State University professor had questioned Reagan’s fitness for the presidency because of his age, using examples from Reagan’s debate performance the night before. Surveys conduced AFTER this news broke found that voters rated Mondale as the winner by a four-to-one ratio.

Ocotber 11, 1984

Who: Vice-Presidential Debate — Republican candidate George Bush and Democratic candidate Geraldine Ferraro Where: Philadelphia, Pa. Moderator: Sandra Vanocur as moderator, plus a panel including John Mashek, Jack White, Norma Quarles and Robert Boyd. Format: 2 ½-minute responses; 1-minute rebuttals; 4-minute closing statements Sponsors: LWV and ABC, NBC and CBS Ratings: 56.7 million viewers

Vice-presidential candidates Bush and Ferraro, then a Democratic congresswoman from New York, met for one televised debate and disagreed on a wide range of issues. Bush repeatedly stressed his experience; Ferraro charged Republicans with belligerence on arms control and for unfair policies toward the poor and disadvantaged. At one point, Ferraro warned Bush not to “patronize” her after he offered to explain the difference between the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Iran and the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Lebanon. At a campaign rally the next day, Bush was overheard on an open mike saying he “kicked a little ass” in the debate.

October 21, 1984

Who: Reagan and Mondale Where: Kansas City, Mo. Moderator: Edwin Newman as moderator, plus a panel including Georgie Anne Geyer, Marvin Kalb and Morton Kondracke. Format: 2 ½-minute responses; 1-minute rebuttals; 4-minute closing statements Sponsors: LWV, the ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS Ratings: 67.3 million viewers

In the final debate Reagan out maneuvered Mondale with lines such as, “I will not, for political purposes, exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

1988 Election

The 1988 debates provided some of the more memorable moments in debate history. The three debates featured tense exchanges between Vice President George Bush and Michael Dukakis, and GOP vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle drawing parallels between himself and President Kennedy.

September 25, 1988

Who: Vice President George Bush, a Republican, and Democrat Michael Dukakis Where: Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C. Moderator: Jim Lehrer as moderator, plus a panel including John Mashek, Peter Jennings and Ann Groer Format: 2-minute responses; 1-minute rebuttals; follow-up by panel; 2-minute closing statements Sponsor/Broadcasters: Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD); Networks Ratings: 65.1 million viewers

In their first debate, Dukakis and Bush sparred over competence and social values. One tense moment occurred when Dukakis asserted that he resented Bush “questioning my patriotism” over the Pledge of Allegiance, declaring, “Mr. Bush, I don’t question your patriotism.”

When Bush said that he had not “sorted out the penalties” for women who sought abortions or doctors who performed them, Dukakis hit Bush hard, charging Bush was “saying he is willing to brand a woman a criminal for making this choice.”

Bush, in the final 30 minutes of the debate, joked about the tense exchanges: “I’d hoped this would be a little friendlier — I wanted to thumb a ride home in his tank.”

October 5, 1988

Who: Vice-Presidential Debate — GOP candidate Dan Quayle and Democratic candidate Lloyd Bentsen Where: Omaha Civic Auditorium, Omaha, Neb. Moderator: Judy Woodruff as moderator, plus a panel including Tom Brokaw, Jon Margolis and Brit Hume Format: No opening statements; 2-minute responses; 1-minute rebuttals; 2-minute closing statements Sponsor/Broadcasters: CPD; Networks Ratings: 46.9 million viewers

The 1988 vice-presidential candidates met for one televised debate. The 90-minute forum included one memorable exchange, when Quayle was grilled on what he would do in the event that he was called upon to assume the presidency. Quayle responded that he was at least as qualified for the job as John F. Kennedy had been when he ran for president in 1960. Bentsen, in a pre-scripted reply which anticipated that Quayle might mention Kennedy, said, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.”

October 13, 1988

Who: Bush and Dukakis Where: University of California at Los Angeles Moderator: Bernard Shaw as moderator, plus a panel including Andrea Mitchell, Ann Compton and Margaret Warner Format: No opening statements; 2-minute responses; follow-up by panel; 2-minute closing statements Sponsor/Broadcasters: CPD; Networks Ratings: 67.3 million viewers

During the second debate, moderator Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis if he would still oppose the death penalty if his wife Kitty was raped and murdered. Dukakis’ unemotional “no” response made him seem cold.

1992 Election

Prior to the debates, GOP President George Bush, who had hedged on participating in the Commission-sponsored forums, was stalked by a Bill Clinton supporter dressed in a chicken suit. At one event Bush actually engaged the chicken, saying, “You talking about the draft-record chicken or are you talking about the chicken in the Arkansas River? Which one are you talking about? Which one? Get out of here. Maybe it’s the draft? Is that what's bothering you?”

In early October, the Bush and Clinton campaigns announced they had ended their debate over debates that had been dragging on for months. Both campaigns also agreed to welcome Reform Party candidate Ross Perot onto the stage. The Commission had announced back in June of that year that Perot would likely qualify to take part in the debates.

The 1992 debates made history on two fronts — they were the first to feature three candidates in a presidential debate and for the first time, alternative formats were tried out.

October 11, 1992

Who: President Bush (R), Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D), Ross Perot (I) Where: Washington University, St. Louis, Mo. Moderator: Jim Lehrer as moderator, plus a panel including Sander Vanocur, Ann Compton, and John Mashek Format: No opening responses; 2-minute responses; 1-minute responses; 2-minute closing statements Sponsor/Broadcasters: CPD; ABC, NBC, PBS (CBS broadcast a baseball playoff game instead) Ratings: 62.4 million viewers

In the first debate, each candidate emphasized the main theme of his campaign: Bush stressed his experience and successes in foreign policy; Clinton called for change and castigated Bush for the weak state of the economy; and Perot charged that the government was being overrun by special interests and that the national debt was crippling America.

October 13, 1992

Who: Vice-Presidential Debate — Vice President Al Gore (R), Sen. Al Gore (D), Admiral William Stockdale (I) Where: Georgia Tech, Atlanta Moderator: Hal Bruno Format: 2-minute opening statements; 75-second responses; 5 minute discussion on each topic; 2-minute closing statements Sponsor/Broadcasters: CPD; Networks Ratings: 51.2 million viewers

In the debate, Quayle repeatedly attacked Clinton’s credibility, arguing that Clinton had neither “the strength nor the character to be president.” Gore criticized what he saw as the failure of 12 years of Republican “trickle-down” economic policies, and emphasized his commitment to protecting the environment.

Perot running mate Stockdale, who had no prior political experience, uttered his famous “Who am I? Why am I here? I’m not a politician-everybody knows that” line. Clinton aides later criticized Gore for failing to aggressively defend his running mate.

October 15, 1992

Who: Bush, Clinton, Perot Where: University of Richmond, Richmond, Va. Moderator: Carole Simpson Format: Town hall meeting with 209 undecided voters asking questions Sponsor/Broadcasters: CPD; Networks Ratings: 69.9 million viewers

October 19, 1992

Who: Bush, Clinton and Perot Where: Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich. Moderator: Jim Lehrer Format: First half — roughly 2-minute answers; 1-minute rebuttals. Second half — 3-journalist panel of Gene Gibbons, Helen Thomas and Susan Rook posed questions; 2-minute closing statements. Sponsor/Broadcasters: CPD; Networks Ratings: 66.9 million viewers

The third debate between Bush, Clinton and Perot was the most watched debate in history. In this debate, the candidates resumed their attacks on each other: Bush blasted Clinton’s record as governor and his alleged draft-dodging during the Vietnam War; Clinton assailed Bush for ignoring the nation’s economic woes; and Perot unexpectedly contended that Bush had pandered to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

1996 Election

President Clinton headed into the debate season full of confidence — he had a sizeable lead over his Republican opponent Sen. Robert Dole and his approval ratings were high. Probably because of Clinton’s substantial lead over Dole in the polls, viewership of the debates declined sharply between 1992 and his debates with Dole in 1996. For the vice-presidential debate, viewership dropped by almost half between 1992 and 1996.

Perot was invited to participate in the 1992 debates because he met the Commission requirements of a national organization and signs of competitiveness and national interest. However, the Commission did not invite Perot to participate in the debates in 1996 based on his adjudged failure to meet the same criteria. Perot challenged the Commission in court, but his petition was denied.

The first scheduled debate, set for September 26 in St. Louis, was canceled because Clinton addressed the United Nations and held a fund-raiser the night before the event.

October 6, 1996

Who: President Bill Clinton and Sen. Robert Dole Where: Hartford, Conn. Moderator: Jim Lehrer Format: 2-minute opening statements; 1 ½-minute answers; 1-minute rebuttal; ½-minute response; 2-minute closing statements Sponsor/Broadcasters: CPD; Networks Ratings: 46.1 million viewers

In the first debate, the two candidates sparred on the economy, Medicare spending, tax cuts, and foreign affairs. Dole attacked Clinton as a big-spending Democrat beholden to elite liberal special interest groups. He also subtly questioned the President’s character in light of Whitewater and the other campaign finance scandals plaguing the Clinton White House. Clinton, however, stuck to a positive message, claiming the nation was better off after four years of his administration.

After this first debate, Dole was criticized by some in his party for not attacking Clinton’s character more aggressively. According to accounts published after the election, some of Dole’s reticence may have been attributed to his campaign’s knowledge at that time that the Washington Post had interviewed a woman who claimed she had an affair with Dole during his first marriage. The Post never published the story.

October 9, 1996

Who: Vice-Presidential Debate — Democratic candidate Al Gore and GOP candidate Jack Kemp Where: St. Petersburg, Fla. Moderator: Jim Lehrer Format: No opening statements; 1 ½-minute answers; 1-minute rebuttals; ½-minute responses; 3-minute closing statements Sponsor/Broadcasters: CPD; Networks Ratings: 26.6 million viewers

Gore and Kemp sparred over tax policy, the economy, Medicare, and foreign policy. In addition, they touched on controversial issues such as abortion and affirmative action-issues that had not been raised in the first showdown between the presidential nominees. The vice-presidential debate was cordial, with both participants pledging to forego personal attacks.

Gore’s most famous line from that debate: “I’d like to start by offering you a deal, Jack. If you won’t use any football stories, I won’t tell any of my warm and humorous stories about chlorofluorocarbon abatement.” Kemp was criticized by many Republicans after the debate for being too nice to Gore.

October 16, 1996

Who: Clinton and Dole Where: San Diego, Calif. Moderator: Jim Lehrer Format: Town hall meeting with 113 undecided voters; 2-minute opening statements; 1 ½-minute answers; 1-minute rebuttals; ½-minute responses; 2-minute closing statements Sponsor/Broadcasters: CPD; Networks Ratings: 36.3 million viewers (lowest ever)

In the second debate of 1996, the candidates took questions from audience members on subjects ranging from Social Security and defense spending to affirmative action and gay rights. Dole stepped up his attacks on Clinton’s integrity and ethics.

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