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A Look Back: History of the Presidential Debate

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A record-setting 84 million people tuned in to the first presidential debate held between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016. Donald Trump and Joe Biden didn’t come near to that figure in their first debate held on Sept. 29, 2020, but the number of viewers was over 70 million. Presidential debates are some of the most widely anticipated events during American presidential elections. Americans love to watch both parties’ candidates square off in a gladiatorial contest of words. But televised debates — and presidential debates in general — are a relatively new tradition.

‘The Little Giant’ vs. ‘Old Abe’

While campaigning for senator in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas met in a series of seven debates in 1858. Saint Paul’s weekly Minnesotian reported that “Lincoln ‘took down’ Douglas most effectually on every point of the debate” with his “strong and crushing replies.” Another newspaper stated that during the first few debates, “the ‘Little Giant’ was a full match for his sledge-hammer competitor, but in the later encounters ‘Old Abe’ appears to be driving the ‘Giant’ to the wall.” It continued: “Mr. Douglas gets excited, starts off under full head and seems to lack wind and muscle for closing rounds, while Mr. Lincoln commences calm and cool, and as he warms up the ‘head in chancery’ gets terribly battered.” Douglas ultimately triumphed in the race and won re-election to the U.S. Senate. These debates, while for a congressional seat and not the presidency, inspired future debates on the presidential stage.

The Great Debates

On Sept. 26, 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon met in the first televised presidential debate. As with the Lincoln and Douglas debates 100 years prior, people paid close attention to the candidates’ demeanor and appearance. Roughly 77 million viewers tuned in. Kennedy appeared calm, confident and healthy. Nixon looked jittery and worn-out and sweat profusely during the debate. What the viewers didn’t know was that Nixon had been treated for a staph infection 40 days earlier. He spent 12 days at the Walter Reed Medical Center and had lost 20 pounds. Kennedy’s success on TV allowed him to pull ahead by 119,540 popular votes (0.35 percent). “It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide,” Kennedy declared after the election.

Nixon wasn’t the only candidate whose presidential campaign was damaged due to poor performance during a televised debate. Other notable mentions include George H.W. Bush, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis.

Presidential Debate Hiatus

After his poor showing against Kennedy in 1960, Nixon refused to debate on TV again. Therefore, he opted out of debates during his 1968 and 1972 presidential elections. His adversary in 1968, Hubert Humphrey, taunted him as “Richard the Silent” and “Richard the Chicken Hearted.” But Nixon had the last laugh by defeating Humphrey in the general election. Another televised presidential debate wasn’t held until 1976.

Nixon wasn’t the only president to refuse to debate. In 1940, Wendell Willkie became the first presidential candidate to challenge his opponent, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to a debate. Roosevelt wisely declined the radio debate, aware of Willkie’s prowess for public speaking.

Ingrained in American Culture

Most Americans have come to regard the debates as an essential part of each year’s presidential election. That’s because it’s been common practice during many of our lifetimes. As shown in the past, it can give a candidate an edge in the general election. It has helped candidates like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan win the presidential election. And it has caused others to lose it. It could impact the outcome of the 2020 election. We’ll have to wait to see this November.


About Frank Jastrzembski

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Frank Jastrzembski is an associate editor with Delta Defense, LLC. He studied history at John Carroll University (B.A.) and Cleveland State University (M.A.). He’s written dozens of history and travel articles and two books on Victorian officers. He’s also a regular contributor to the blog Emerging Civil War. He runs “Shrouded Veterans,” a nonprofit mission to identify or repair the graves of Mexican War and Civil War veterans.

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