How Presidential Debates Work

Sept. 26, 1960, proved a bad night for Vice-president Richard Nixon. See more pictures of presidents.
Sept. 26, 1960, proved a bad night for Vice-president Richard Nixon. See more pictures of presidents.
Paul Schutzer/Time Life Pictures/ Getty Images

This was a big mistake.

For the first time in history, the two party-nominated candidates for president of the United States were about to debate with television cameras trained on them. And Nixon was beginning to regret agreeing to this.


In the studios of a CBS affiliate in Chicago on Sept. 26, 1960, he felt like death warmed over. The month earlier, he'd slammed his knee into a car door, an injury that became a staph infection. He'd just spent two weeks in the hospital, and now, with the cameras about to roll, he was sweating, 10 pounds underweight and feeling terribly. Some guy had painted the backdrop almost the precise shade of gray as Nixon's suit, and he was fading into it. As if things couldn't possibly get worse, his opponent, Sen. John F. Kennedy, had spent the past month taking it easy on the campaign trail in sunny California. He looked tan, rested and as fit as Nixon had ever seen the kid.

That first debate was a groundbreaking event. Sixty-six million people watched it on television alone [source: CNN]. Historians would capitalize the "d" in debate and place the word "Great" in front of it. And Nixon looked seriously ill throughout.

Whether television had an impact on the 1960 presidential election was clear. A majority of people who listened to the debate on the radio considered Nixon the winner. A poll of TV viewers of that same debate found a clear majority believed Kennedy had won [source: C-SPAN]. Later polls found more than half of voters said the televised series of four debates had shaped how they cast their ballots; six percent said they voted specifically according to their impression of the debates [source: MBC]. Kennedy won the November election.

No longer was politics only about the issues and whatever a campaign could plant in the papers; they were also about aesthetics now. No longer were debates for the benefit of the few people in a room. They were now about the tens of millions who tuned in not only to listen to the candidates but watch them as well.

Lesson learned. So instead of allowing their candidate to be abused by the new medium, campaign managers and party leaders sought ways to exploit it. Presidential debates would never be the same again. By the time the 21st century rolled around, they bore about the same resemblance to that first televised debate in 1960 as the game show in the movie "The Running Man" bears to "You Bet Your Life."

A Brief History of U.S. Presidential Debates

An illustration of the historic senatorial debate between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln in 1858.
An illustration of the historic senatorial debate between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln in 1858.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

First, a bit of history on presidential debates. In the United States, they were actually born out of a well-publicized Illinois senatorial debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. This debate, with no moderator or panel, was the result of Lincoln following Douglas on his campaign trail around the state, goading him from the audience during campaign speeches. The pair eventually took the stage together for three hours to debate the moral and economic quandaries posed by slavery. The effects of their senatorial debate (Douglas won the seat) wouldn't be seen immediately: Lincoln didn't debate at all during his successful campaign for president two years later in 1860 [source: CNN].

All remained quiet on the debate front; 15 election cycles passed without much public argument between candidates -- the dialogue was separate, usually in the form of campaign speeches. In 1948, the presidential debate would get a boost with a radio broadcast of a debate between Republican primary contenders Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen. Between 40 and 80 million listeners tuned into the radio broadcast of the pair's debate over outlawing communism in the United States. Still, debates didn't really catch on. Even after the first televised debate (featuring all of the potential candidates), hosted by the League of Women Voters (LWV), an organization that would play an enormous role in shaping presidential debates in the United States, in 1952, debates still remained peripheral to the process of selecting a president.


Once the Kennedy-Nixon series were held, though, the concept of presidential debates took off like a rocket. The public began to expect debate between candidates; debates became an American institution. With all of the weight debates now carried, they could also be construed as lightning in a bottle. To Nixon and other candidates who followed, the bottle had to be safely capped. Lyndon Johnson turned down requests to debate in 1964, as did Nixon in the 1968 campaign. Once elected, Nixon used his presidential veto power to override a bill that repealed the equal time provision of the Communications Act of 1934.

This law required that candidates in national elections must have equal exposure in the media. During the 20th century, candidates used the equal time provision to their advantage. By refusing to debate, any candidate could effectively cripple a proposed debate. Certainly, there was a measure of bad press associated with turning down an invitation to debate. But bad press is better than bad television exposure any day of the week, as the Nixon showing in 1960 had taught. Furthermore, exploiting the equal time provision became a tool favored by front-runners in an election cycle. Bad press from a refusal to debate is far outweighed by the potential harm provided by debating a rival candidate who may have a good showing and possibly sway millions of voters.

Exploiting debates and the debate process looked like it might get out of hand in the 1960s and '70s, until the LWV stepped in to take the reigns of the political process away from campaign strategists. The organization would have a renewed positive impact on presidential races for eight years. In 1988, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) took over and became the only organization capable of legitimately hosting presidential debates. Other debates, held before the candidates are nominated at the conventions, are hosted by news agencies and television networks and aren't official presidential debates. The CPD oversees height requirements for podiums, room temperature at debate halls, chooses moderators and serves as a propaganda arm for both the Republican and Democratic parties. The creation of the CPD ultimately tolled the death of spontaneity in presidential debates.

The Ideal Debate

Debates, like this one in 2004, take time to set up. Time and a neutral location aren't the only factors involved in ensuring fairness. Things like podium height and seating arrangements are also carefully crafted.
Debates, like this one in 2004, take time to set up. Time and a neutral location aren't the only factors involved in ensuring fairness. Things like podium height and seating arrangements are also carefully crafted.
Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

Spontaneity is perhaps the most important factor in a debate. Without spontaneous responses culled through follow-up questions, debates are nothing more than well-rehearsed press releases spouted off by the candidates on television. Debates are also meant to be nonpartisan. An ideal debate should be open to all candidates who qualify, and the format should be fair to all candidates participating [source: LWV]. This makes neutrality, the division of time, the moderation and the type of format chosen of vital importance to presidential debates.



Selecting a neutral site for a debate can be difficult. No location can be selected in a candidate's home state or hometown. Since presidential debates are often held at colleges and universities, any of the candidates' alma maters are out. Most tiny towns are out of the running: The Commission on Presidential Debates' (CPD) minimum requirements, like at least 3,000 available hotel rooms and the $7,500 application fee, generally ensure small towns won't land a debate. The prestige associated with hosting a debate is such that even places passed over in favor of others still gush over having been considered.

A fair division of time among the candidates is tradition in debates. Candidates are provided with an equal amount of time to give opening and closing statements about the issues and what the audience has heard during the debate. It's the time in between that can be divided in different ways. In some cases, time may be evenly split strictly through allowing candidates an allotted amount of time to respond to questions. Other formats allow for rebuttals, especially when an issue is slanted toward one candidate or another. The rarest division of time allows candidates to cross-examine one another on an issue [source: LWV].

There are a few established formats for debates. Under the moderator format, a debate is hosted by a single person, usually a television journalist, who poses questions to the candidates, directs them to rebut and manages response times. In the panelist format, the single moderator is replaced with several people. This format can also feature a moderator. A town hall meeting format has members of the audience ask questions. This format is meant to create the most relaxed and spontaneous atmosphere of the three types.

To qualify for a debate, a candidate has to have a statistically feasible chance of being able to win a majority of the votes available in the Electoral College. The formula for determining this chance is based on the number of states with ballots on which the candidate's name appears -- the number of states a candidate could win simply by appearing on the ballot. The candidate also must have at least 15 percent of voters' support in polls before the debates begin [source: AP].

A ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would allow even qualified candidates to be excluded from debates. This one change to the equal time provision of the Communications Act also ended the days when a candidate could kill a debate simply by refusing to show up. It also allowed the League of Women Voters (LWV) to step in as host, what would prove to be a short-lived heyday for presidential debates.

Presidential Debates under the League of Women Voters

Senior members of the League of Women Voters issue invitations to the presidential candidates during a press conference in 1980.
Senior members of the League of Women Voters issue invitations to the presidential candidates during a press conference in 1980.
Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The League of Women Voters (LWV) was an organization born immediately after the 19th Amendment made the women's suffrage movement obsolete. Now granted the right to vote, the suffrage movement looked to encourage women to "use their new power to participate in shaping public policy" [source: LWV]. In 1975, the coalition used its power to become the hosts of the 1976 presidential debates.

This was not new for the league; in 1952 it hosted the first nationally-televised debate in U.S. history. It differed from the televised Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 in that all candidates from both parties were present instead of just the two nominated candidates. The league remained out of the arena of debates until the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) amended the equal time provision, declaring presidential debates "bona fide news events," which, if hosted by a third party, exempted debates from the equal time provision [source: CNN].


The LWV stepped in as the third party needed for this new regulation and hosted presidential debates from 1976 to '84. The LWV codified the formats of presidential debates, splitting them into categories based on how questions are asked. The league used an open format, allowing follow-up questions among candidates. These types of questions are difficult to prepare for before a debate -- they're unpredictable.

The league ran a tight ship from 1976 to '88. As a nonpartisan organization, it was ardent in affording equal time to all candidates. The organization was also the keeper of the format, the questions and the debate in general. It served as host, and the candidates were invited to participate or not; the debate would go on without them. The LWV's refusal to acquiesce to candidates' demands made presidential debates a powerful force in U.S. politics. When Jimmy Carter refused to debate with both Republican nominee Ronald Reagan and independent candidate John Anderson in 1980, the LWV held the debate without Carter. Reagan went on to win the election, and his performance at the debates without Carter to contend with was one factor in his win [source: PBS].

This made presidential debates dangerous, and not just to Democrats like Carter. In a given election cycle, candidates from any party could face humiliation, the loss of a lead in the polls and defeat, all because of a single debate. So the two major parties in the United States came together to wrestle control of presidential debates from the League of Women Voters.

The Commission on Presidential Debates

Reform Party candidate Ross Perot's strong showing in the 1992 presidential debates got him excluded from the 1996 debates.
Reform Party candidate Ross Perot's strong showing in the 1992 presidential debates got him excluded from the 1996 debates.
John G. Mabanglo/AFP/Getty Images

In 1984, the cooperation between the Republican and Democratic parties led to a joint veto of almost 100 proposed panelists for the first debate. The following election cycle saw more of a grab for control by the two major parties. The campaigns of George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis met without the knowledge of the League of Women Voters (LWV) and drafted a memorandum of understanding. This secret document specified who would be allowed sit in the audience during the '88 debates and who would serve as panelists, as well as abolished follow-up questions. Under these terms, the LWV would be left to merely host and would have no say in how the debates were held.

In disgust, the League of Women Voters exposed the memorandum and resigned as hosts of presidential debates, citing the "fraud on the American voter" being carried out by the two major parties [source: PBS]. To fill the void left by the LWV, the Democrats and Republicans formed the joint nonprofit bipartisan organization the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).


The CPD is the only organization allowed to host presidential debates. It schedules three to four debates, held after the nominating conventions, including at least one vice-presidential debate. Usually a year before the debates begin, the locations (including alternate locations) and the moderators are announced. Party debates during the primaries and those held before the conventions are often called presidential debates, but they aren't official unless the CPD is involved, even if these campaigns have similar agreements with the networks hosting and broadcasting the CPD debates.

In 1992, Reform Party candidate Ross Perot had a seven percent rating in the polls before the presidential debates. On election day, Perot had 19 percent of the vote, the largest-ever jump for a presidential candidate [source: PBS]. Proving himself a risk to the other candidates, the Dole and Clinton campaigns excluded him from the presidential debates through the CPD when he ran again in 1996. Perot later sued the major television networks for failing to grant him equal time, but since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changed the provision in 1975, Perot lost his suits [source: FCC].

The fallout from Perot's exclusion from the debates illustrates one of the vital services the CPD provides the two major parties. It acts as a shield. Despite the Democrats and Republicans drafting memorandums of understanding and deciding who can participate, it's the CPD that publicly issues the decisions; so it's the CPD that accepts the public's ire. But since it isn't beholden to the public, the CPD has nothing to lose. In 1996, a poll found that five percent of people polled blamed the Clinton campaign for Perot's exclusion, and Bob Dole's campaign received the blame from 13 percent of respondents. More than 50 percent held the CPD at fault [source: Open Debates].

What's more, the formats of presidential debates under the CPD lent themselves to pat, rehearsed answers that offer little insight into the candidates' views of the issues. In 2000, Sen. John Kerry (who would be the Democratic candidate four years later) criticized the debates: "You could have picked ten people off the street who didn't know Jerusalem from Georgia and they would have had better questions" [source: Open Debates].

Despite any shallowness presidential debates took on after the CPD came to power, they're still meant for the consumption of the voting public. It's up to the voting public to choose a winner in a debate.

Presidential Debates: Who Wins?

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen toys with Sen. Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate in Omaha.
Sen. Lloyd Bentsen toys with Sen. Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate in Omaha.
Steve Liss/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Presidential debates since 1988 may be rigged to serve the two-party system, but the winner isn't predetermined. Debates are meant to be about candidates' views on the issues, and no response is incorrect. So if there's no right or wrong answers in a debate, how can one candidate emerge a winner?

The results of debates are all about perception. There's the perception of the national news anchors who serve as commentators, who lead viewers in by telling them what to expect. Then they lead viewers out of the debate by dissecting what was just said. There's the perception of the media who write about the debate. What commentators and reporters choose to discuss can help shape the minds of the voting public -- the group whose opinion matters the most in determining the winner of a debate.


Sometimes, the candidates make it obvious who's lost. Pres. George H.W. Bush made it an easy call when he checked his watch several times during a town hall debate in the 1992 election [source: CNN]. In the 2004 debates between Sen. John Kerry and Pres. George W. Bush, the television networks ignored the memorandum of understanding and filmed reaction shots. They caught Bush looking annoyed during breakaway shots, which occur when the camera switches from the candidate speaking to the one who's not [source: AP].

The winner of a debate can become equally clear -- sometimes just through a mere turn of phrase. When Sen. Dan Quayle compared himself to Pres. John F. Kennedy in a 1988 vice-presidential debate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen pounced on him. "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine," Bentsen said. "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" [source: Yale]. When Ronald Reagan's age became an issue of discussion in a 1984 debate, he turned the tables, saying, "I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Ultimately, what matters is who the public thinks won a debate. Polling companies have made an industry of keeping track of what voters think. As soon as a debate ends, polling companies and media agencies have employees on the phone calling registered voters to ask them what they thought of the debate. Within hours, polls are released and the winners are clear. The results can come more quickly through snap polling, where voters go to the pollsters via the Internet or some other aspect of new media.

The veracity of post-debate polls in accurately pinning down voter sentiment can be hit-or-miss. In 1988 and 1992, polls missed the mark by declaring as winners the same candidates who were defeated on Election Day [source: Abramowitz]. And while polls almost across the board showed Kerry as the winner of the three presidential debates in 2004, George W. Bush won re-election [source: CNN]. Snap polls are often contested since they require a level of tech-savvy and therefore represent younger segments of the voting population rather than the voting public as a whole. The very presence of polls can also affect voter sentiment. Polls released showing a clear winner from a debate can affect the perception of the outcome of a debate, influencing voter perception.

The advent of snap polls has inspired a resurgence of technology in presidential debates. For the first time since 1960, technology would begin to play a major role in shaping the political process in the 2008 election.

Technology and the Presidential Debate

Sen. John McCain is quizzed during the MTV/MySpace presidential town hall forum in December 2007.
Sen. John McCain is quizzed during the MTV/MySpace presidential town hall forum in December 2007.
Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Presidential campaigns managing debates from the primaries to Election Day later moved to wrestle control of debates from an open format that afforded candid insight into the candidates. Presidential debates would become "wooden and unfocused" [source: New York Times]. But after a couple decades, technology would intercede to change the rules of debate, as it had in 1960.

In the 2008 presidential primaries, CNN hosted two debates for both Democrat and Republican candidates using questions submitted by voters via YouTube. While the format was a groundbreaking one, it was widely criticized. Some critics questioned why YouTube and CNN didn't allow YouTube viewers to choose which video questions candidates would answer. Still, the shared billing of the media (CNN) with new media (YouTube) was an undeniable indicator that technology was making a comeback at influencing presidential politics through debate. "We think that politics will never be the same (thankfully)" wrote Steve Grove, the head of news and politics for YouTube after the debates [source: Official Google Blog].


YouTube wasn't the only new media kid on the block that made a showing in the 2008 race. MySpace and MTV joined forces to host a series of town hall forums. The forums had only one candidate at a time, with viewers submitting questions through instant messaging and e-mail. The format was well-received by tech wonks; the real-time questions were chosen live by the moderator. The candidates were rated by viewers, with the results posted simultaneously on MySpace and the MTV broadcast [source: Wired].

The social networking service Twitter also turned up in 2008. Official surrogates for Barack Obama and John McCain responded to questions from Time magazine's Ana Marie Cox via text messaging. By signing up to receive tweets from the moderator and the responses from the candidates' representatives, anyone with a cell phone could tune in. The Twitter format allows for no more than 140 characters, so responses were forced to be concise and to the point [source: Personal Democracy Forum].

The insinuation of technology into the 2008 race had the feeling of a society learning to apply its new tools to an old institution. Twitter, YouTube and MySpace all made appearances in unofficial debates; the 2008 presidential debates followed CPD standards. Old and new are butting heads, with the Commission on Presidential Debates and new media vying for transparency or control of debates. Either technology will emerge as the victor, creating more transparency in the political process, or the major parties will figure out a way to exploit new technology to their own ends. No matter what the result of this contention, presidential debates will remain part of the presidential process. They've become an American tradition, one that may evolve but will always remain.

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