Presidential Debates Thoughout History

When Abraham Lincoln ran for the Senate seat for the state of Illinois 1n 1858 he was a relative unknown. Unlike his opponent Steven Douglas who was not only a well known public figure but also a most respected one as well. Lincoln pinned his Senatorial hopes on the concept that a the union could not survive with it’s present half free, half slave status. Lincoln suggested that over a three month period a series of seven debates be held throughout the state of Illinois. Douglas unwillingly accepted because he realized that slavery and the state of the Union would be hot topics. The exchanges were heated (www.niu.edu search “Lincoln/Douglas“) as the nation was beginning to realize what a shrewd politician and skilled orator that Lincoln was. Although Lincoln lost his bid for the Senate that year he and Douglas were inadvertently responsible for the forum that we now know as the presidential debate. Two years later Lincoln would, on the strength of his debates with Douglas, be nominated overwhelmingly to be the Republican candidate for the office of Commander in Chief of the United States. This time he won.

Read the Lincoln/Douglas Debates and Speech Transcripts here.

In 1948 then New York Governor Thomas Dewey and politician Harold Stassen squared off to decide who would be the Republican candidate for the presidency. Between 40 and 80 million people listened on the radio as the two men verbally sparred with each other about whether or not the Communist party should be outlawed in the U.S. In 1960 A Senator from Massachusetts named John Kennedy and then Vice President Richard Nixon participated in four of what would be the first televised general election debates. The two debated in front of a combined 130 million viewers about all manner of foreign and domestic issues. It showcased Kennedy’s natural charisma in front of a wide expanse of the American population. It helped to vaporize a comfortable lead in the polls enjoyed by Nixon and is credited with one of the major factors that swung the vote in Kennedy’s favor. In 1987 The Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, was established to promote and preserve the widespread dissemination of all information presented during debates throughout recorded history. They also sponsor debates of current presidential races by providing the forum for their presentation.

Read the 1948 and 1960 Debates and Speech Transcripts here.

Another nonpartisan organization, The League of Women Voters has also been a major player in sponsoring presidential and other debates that pit opponents against each other to hash out the issues and in fact, sponsored the presidential debates of 1976, 1980 and 1984. The League is very focused on providing open platforms for debate as well as encouraging the participation of third party and independent candidates. In ‘76 incumbent president Gerald Ford debated Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. The debates cast Carter as a benevolent “everyman” who sympathized with the plight of the common citizen while president Ford’s presentation gave the impression of being stiff and awkward. Ford also made the ill advised statement that “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” A fact that obviously was not true and showed Ford in a light of being out of touch with foreign policy issues. From the time that John Kennedy debated Richard Nixon in 1960, 16 years elapsed without any type of presidential debate but from 1976 to the present day, every election has had the benefit of televised deliberations.

Read the Ford and Carter Debate here.

The excerpts of many debates have gained fame for their wit, humor or insight. Walter Mondale famously asked “Where’s the beef?" in 1984 to ridicule his opponent for the Democratic nomination Sen. Gary Hart. In 1984 Ronald Reagan, who was being hammered by his opponent and the media about his age (73), during one debate quipped that “he was not going to make this election an age issue” and that he “refused to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” That statement managed to diffuse the entire age issue and it was not a matter of concern for the remainder of the election. Debate formats usually run 60-90 minutes with a specified time for opening statements, question and answer periods, rebuttals and closing statements. They are kept moving smoothly along by a moderator, occasionally questions will be asked by a group of panelists but this practice has mostly fallen by the wayside. They can make or break a campaign and it is generally considered true that whoever wins the debate, wins the election. By a similar token the candidates who are leading in the polls generally are not in favor of debates while the trailing party embraces them. Presidential candidates have been known to act out entire debates with their advisors beforehand to develop a feel for the situation and to polish scripted lines to sound impromptu. Presidential debates have become an American necessity as a means of informing the populace of the message and platforms from which their candidates wish to sway public opinion to their way of thinking.

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