If election night coverage is the Super Bowl of the presidential election season, then televised debates are the playoffs. But political news junkies might be surprised to learn that debates have not always been a main event in national elections. In fact, before the introduction of TV, presidential debates weren't very common [source: PBS].
The most famous pre-television campaign debates in the United States were in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, who were running for Illinois senator, not president [source: PBS]. In 1940, Republican challenger Wendell Wilkie challenged incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt to debate the issues. Debates were so unheard of at the time, Roosevelt dismissed Wilkie's request, and the media accused the Republican of trying to stage a publicity stunt [source: PBS]. It's hard to imagine a modern president refusing to debate an election challenger by calling them an attention hog.
Today, debates provide good opportunities for candidates to reach large audiences with their ideas and stances on the issues. A debate may not win or lose an election, but it can change a campaign's momentum, triggering a sudden drop or increase in the polls. Independent candidate Ross Perot was able to salvage some of his support in the 1992 election after doing well in the debates, despite having fallen drastically in the polls in the previous months [source: Kraus]. In the 1976 election, President Gerald Ford made a gaffe in a debate with Jimmy Carter, claiming that the Soviet Union did not occupy Eastern Europe. While a majority of viewers thought Ford won the debate, after newscasts focused on the mistake, support for Ford dipped [source: CNN All Politics].