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A Brief History of the Evolution of the Presidential Debate

by Tom Klonoski

The debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump occur at a critical time during the 2016 presidential campaign. With opinion polls showing a close race, the debates have the potential to swing the race in the favor of a single candidate.

Debates have not always been important factors in presidential general elections. They became significant only after the arrival of television in U.S. households in the mid-1900s. Prior to that, newspaper stories on campaign speeches played a much more important role.

The first presidential debate during a general election campaign occurred in 1960. Most people listening in on radio felt that Vice President Richard Nixon, a skilled debater, had triumphed. But those watching on television felt that Senator John F. Kennedy was the victor. Democrat Kennedy appeared calm and poised, whereas Republican Nixon appeared sweaty and nervous. It didn’t help Nixon that he applied his own makeup before the debate.

Youtube feature on Nixon-Kennedy debate

Another campaign in which debates played an important role in the public’s perceptions of the candidates occurred in 1976. In the second debate that year, President Gerald Ford, running against former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, declared that the Soviet Union had “no domination of Eastern Europe” at a time when the USSR had military control throughout the region and dominated Eastern European governments. Ford, a Republican, had meant that the spirit of the Eastern European people would never be dominated by the Soviets, but he did not make this clear. Carter pounced on the apparent error and was deemed to have won the debate. He surged ahead in the polls and was able to hold off late gains by Ford to win the election.

In 2000, presidential debates swung the general election campaign in the Republicans’ favor. Going into the first of three debates, Vice President Al Gore, a Democrat, had an 8 percent lead in the polls over former Texas Governor George Bush. But in the debates Gore came off as condescending while Bush appeared more likable. After the last debate, Gore’s lead had disintegrated and the campaign ended with one of the closest elections in U.S. history, with Bush winning in a controversial manner.

Photograph from 2000 presidential debate

Although the outcome of the first Clinton-Trump debate was widely portrayed as a Clinton victory, this result alone is unlikely to determine the election. There are still two debates to come, and unexpected developments in domestic and international affairs could also play a key role in separating the candidates in the minds of undecided voters. Only a major error in the debates would be likely to be an important factor in the election results on November 8th.

Photograph from 2016 presidential debate (image from www.wbur.org)