Debate Facts, Figures and Milestones

— After weeks of debating over debates, Republican candidate George W. Bush and the Democratic candidate Vice President Al Gore are ready to face off in three presidential debates. Before these two get started, take a look back at the history and evolution of this quadrennial event.

Facts and Figures

The four debates between Vice President Richard Nixon, a Republican, and Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960 were the first nationally televised debates and the first general election presidential debates ever (the famed Abraham Lincoln/Stephen A. Douglas debates occurred when both men were candidates for Illinois’ seat in the U.S. Senate).

Except for the 60-minute exchanges between Nixon and Kennedy, presidential debates always have run for 90 minutes.

Historically, debates have drawn huge audiences similar to those for other special broadcasts such as the Academy Awards. This trend has continued even as voter turnout on Election Day has dropped.

The most-watched presidential debate of all time occurred in the third and final exchange among GOP President George Bush, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and Reform Party founder Ross Perot in 1992, when more than 97 million viewers tuned in. The least-watched debate of all time was the second debate between Clinton and his Republican opponent Sen. Bob Dole in 1996, when viewership only reached 36.3 million. Typically, debate viewership is in the 60 million to 80 million range. For vice-presidential debates, viewership is typically between 30 million and 50 million.

Debate viewership has increased from event to event in five out of the seven general election cycles in which debates have taken place. One exception was in 1976, when the first two “dull” exchanges between President Ford, a Republican, and Democrat Jimmy Carter failed to spur voter interest and viewership actually declined for the third debate. The only other exception was in 1996, when voters felt a Clinton win was inevitable and debate viewership fell from 46.1 million viewers in the first debate to 36.3 million for the second between Clinton and Dole.


The first nationally televised general election debates occurred in 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon debated four times from Sept. 26 through Oct. 21.

The 1960 debates occurred, in part, because Congress suspended the equal-time provision that would have forced the networks to allow third-party candidates into the debates. After the 1960 election, however, the Federal Communications Commission went back to its strict interpretation of the equal-time statute. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson was opposed to presidential debates, and in 1968 and 1972, Nixon was opposed to them.

In 1975, the Federal Communications Commission revised its equal time rule providing for debates by qualified major-party candidates as long as they were conducted as “bona-fide news events, sponsored by non-broadcast entities and carried in their entirety.” Once this occurred, the League of Women Voters Education Fund offered to host both presidential and vice-presidential debates before the 1976 election.

In 1985, the Republican and Democratic parties, in an effort to “assert party control” over the debate process, together formed the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

In 1988, the League of Women Voters wound up yielding sponsorship of the debates to the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has overseen all general election debate contests since that year.

The 1992 debates were the only commission-sponsored events to include third-party candidates — independent Ross Perot, who later founded the Reform Party, and his vice-presidential nominee, retired Adm. James Stockdale.

In each of the last three election cycles, the commission has provided a list of criteria that third-party candidates must meet in order to qualify for the debates, as dictated by Federal Election Commission regulations. In 1992 and 1996, the criteria were a long list of standards involving media coverage and other, more subjective types of standards. But for 1998, the debate commission shortened its list of criteria to basically a hard-and-fast 15 percent threshold in a series of designated national polls by media organizations.

Source: ABCNEWS Research, Katy Textor and Landmark Documents in American History: An On-Line Archive, by Facts On File, Inc.