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Summary Article: Presidential Debates
From Encyclopedia of U.S. Campaigns, Elections, and Electoral Behavior

PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES HAVE occurred between the two major party candidates during every presidential election year since 1976. Only once in the last 30 years has a third-party candidate participated in the presidential debates with the two major parties. That Independent candidate was Ross Perot in 1992. Additionally, there has been one vice presidential debate every presidential election year since 1984. Presidential debates are important to American democracy, in that they increase issue salience in the minds of American voters and they provide a forum to compare and contrast the major candidates before the presidential election. The debates are also effective campaign strategies that showcase the communication abilities of the presidential candidates, essential for the modern president.

Debates allow for voters who watch to be informed about the candidates’ stances on issues that are affecting the nation. The debates also allow voters to become better informed about lesser-known candidates, as this forum provides an opportunity for viewers to understand the distinctions between the candidates and compare the candidates communication skills. Voters can become more confident of their vote choice by viewing the debates.


The first presidential primary debate was May 17, 1948, between two Republican candidates, Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen. At that time, Thomas Dewey was the governor of New York and Harold Stassen was the former governor of Minnesota. The debate took place in Portland, Oregon, just prior to the Oregon Republican primary, and was approximately one hour long. Dewey and Stassen debated on outlawing the Communist Party in the United States; it was the first presidential debate to cover only one topic. Dewey went on to win the Oregon primary and, eventually, the Republican presidential nomination. Stassen unsuccessfully competed for the Republican nomination eight more times from 1952–92.

Eight years later, on May 21, 1956, the second presidential primary debate occurred between former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson and U.S. Senator from Tennessee Estes Kefauver. Stevenson and Kefauver were competing for the Democratic presidential nomination. The debate took place in Miami, Florida, shortly before the Florida Democratic presidential primary. The moderator for this debate was Quincy Howe from ABC News. The issues debated included both foreign and domestic policies. After this debate, Stevenson went on to win the Florida primary, and, eventually the Democratic presidential nomination. Kefauver was nominated and ran as Stevenson’s running mate for their unsuccessful 1956 presidential bid.


The most famous presidential debate occurred on September 26, 1960, in Chicago, Illinois, between Vice President Richard Nixon and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. This was the first national television viewers. The moderator for this debate was Howard K. Smith from CBS News.

The debate included questions on presidential leadership, farm surpluses, the federal debt, teachers’ salaries, divided government, and Communism in the United States. It was also the first of the Great Debates between Nixon and Kennedy.

The first televised presidential debates, between Vice President Richard Nixon and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, had an audience of over 60 million television viewers in the fall of 1960.

Nixon and Kennedy again debated on October 7, 1960, in Washington, D.C., with Frank McGee from NBC as the moderator; issues ranged from Civil Rights to the Cold War. The third Nixon and Kennedy debate was on October 13, 1960, with Bill Shadel from ABC as the moderator. This debate used an unusual method of a split screen with Nixon in an ABC studio in Los Angeles and Kennedy in an ABC studio in New York. The issues in the debate included Communism, labor unions, economic growth, gold, and American prestige. The final debate between Nixon and Kennedy was on October 21, 1960, in New York City with Quincy Howe from ABC as the moderator. The issues included Cuba, Communism, presidential appointments, nuclear testing, and American prestige. Each of these four debates between Nixon and Kennedy had over 60 million viewers. Kennedy went on to win the presidential election that year, just a few weeks after the last debate. However, 1960–76 there was a hiatus in the general presidential debates, either because of the federal communication laws requiring equal times for all candidates, and/or because of the refusal of the candidates to debate. Then in 1976, changes in the law and the willingness of the candidates to debate allowed for the general presidential debates to resume.

During the 1976 presidential election, there were three presidential debates between President Gerald Ford and the former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. There was also a vice presidential debate between Kansas Senator Bob Dole (Republican) and Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale (Democrat). The first Ford-Carter debate occurred on September 23, 1976, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The moderator for this debate was Edwin Newman from the Baltimore Sun. The issues covered included topics such as unemployment, tax cuts, balanced budgets, the federal deficit, presidential pardons, bureaucratic discretion, the size of the federal government, and divided government. The second debate was on October 6, 1976, in San Francisco, California, with Pauline Frederick from National Public Radio as the moderator. The issues covered both foreign and defense topics. The third debate was on October 22, 1976, in Williamsburg, Virginia, with Barbara Walters from ABC as the moderator. The topics in this debate included issues such as presidential leadership, conduct during campaigns, Watergate, the environment, urban reconstruction, gun control, and Supreme Court appointments.

The first-ever vice presidential debate occurred on October 15, 1976, between Dole and Mondale in Houston, Texas, with James Hoge from the Chicago Sun Times as the moderator. The issues included domestic and foreign policies, such as the economy and defense. Since 1976, formal presidential debates have been held at least twice every four years. Since 1984, one vice-presidential debate has occurred every presidential election year.

The largest recorded viewing audience for a presidential debate in the last 30 years was on October 28, 1980, between President Jimmy Carter and former California governor Ronald Reagan, with approximately 80.6 million viewers. The topics in this debate included defense, racial issues, terrorism, alternative energy sources, and social security. Reagan went on to win the presidential election just one week after this debate. In 1988. the Commission on Presidential Debates assumed control over the sponsorship of the presidential debates, which had been sponsored by the League of Women Voters from 1976–84.

The 1992 presidential debates were the first to include three candidates. The three candidates were President George H.W. Bush, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, and businessman Ross Perot. Their first debate was on October 11, 1992, in Saint Louis, Missouri, with Jim Lehrer of Public Television as the moderator. The second debate was on October 15, 1992, in Richmond, Virginia, with Carole Simpson from ABC as the moderator. The third debate occurred on October 19, 1992, in East Lansing, Michigan, with Jim Lehrer again the moderator. The vice presidential debate included Vice President Dan Quayle, Tennessee Senator Al Gore (Clinton’s running mate), and retired Admiral James Stockdale (Perot’s running mate) on October 13, 1992, with Hal Bruno from ABC as the moderator.


Before participating in a presidential debate, both candidates have to agree to every aspect of the debate. This includes, but is not limited to, the format, style, staging, questioners, and length. Each part of the debate is critical because it can provide an advantage or disadvantage to the candidates in front of the voters.

For example, in 1976 Carter’s campaign was worried about Ford’s height, which was three and a half inches taller than Carter and could provide an advantage for Ford, as voters prefer taller presidents. Ford’s campaign, on the other hand, worried about Ford’s thinning hair. The compromise was that Carter’s podium would be shortened by a couple of inches to make the images of the two candidates more equal in height and the backdrop color would mask Ford’s thinning hair.


Presidential debates have almost become institutionalized in American politics, with the average number of presidential debates increasing over time since 1976. The debates provide valuable information to voters about both the candidates’ positions and their communication skills. Television has provided the medium for millions of Americans to view the presidential debates and make more informed decisions when they vote.

As long as the candidates can agree on all parts of the debate beforehand, there seems to be no reason why this practice will not continue well into the future. Candidates have an incentive to agree to debate in some format because they do not want to risk appearing afraid to debate their opponent on television. Vice presidential debates have considerably fewer viewers; however, these debates have occurred regularly since 1984 and are becoming institutionalized as a practice in American elections.

Third-party candidates have fewer chances to join presidential debates, especially if the two major party candidates do not agree to debate them. Unless it becomes in the interest of both parties to have a third-party candidate debate, as it was in 1992 with Ross Perot, it will be very difficult for third-party candidates to become a part of the presidential debates. Even though third parties have debated each other in presidential election years, the fate of third parties in receiving national coverage or joining the two major party candidates in presidential debates is uncertain. It is also unclear how much effect debates have on American elections and voter behavior. However, it is argued that presidential debates increase the information available to the voters, which is an important element for a thriving democracy.

  • Campaign Strategies; Divided Government and Electoral Behavior; Perot, Ross; Presidential Elections; Third Parties.

  • Commission on Presidential Debates, (cited August 2007).
  • S. A. Hellweg; Michael Pfau; S. R. Brydon, Televised Presidential Debates: Advocacy in Contemporary America (Praeger Publishers, 1992).
  • Sidney Kraus, Televised Presidential Debates and Public Policy (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000).
  • Alan Schroeder, Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV (Columbia University Press, 2000).
  • Jonathan Day
    University of Iowa
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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