Clicking on the Web: Presidential debates since 1960

In this third part of a three-part series, Clicking on the Web takes a look at the presidential debates held from 1960 to 2008.

Howard Lestrud
Howard Lestrud

The 2012 edition of the presidential debates between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney begin Oct. 3.

In the first installment, we took a look at the upcoming debates between Obama and Romney.

We also previewed the scheduled vice presidential debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican VP nominee Paul Ryan.

Go to

Wikipedia recounts some history of the presidential debates started between challengers John F. Kennedy, a Democrat and Richard M. Nixon, a Republican.

Find it at

Let’s read:

“During presidential elections in the United States, it has become customary for the main candidates (almost always the candidates of the two largest parties, currently the Democratic Party and the Republican Party) to engage in a debate.

“The topics discussed in the debate are often the most controversial issues of the time, and arguably elections have been nearly decided by these debates (e.g., Nixon vs. Kennedy).

“While debates aren’t constitutionally mandated, it is often considered a de facto election process.

“The main target for these debates are undecided voters; those who usually aren’t partial to either political ideology or party.

“Presidential debates are held late in the election cycle, after the political parties have nominated their candidates. The candidates meet in a large hall, often at a university, before an audience of citizens.

“The formats of the debates have varied, with questions sometimes posed from one or more journalist moderators and in other cases members of the audience.

“Between 1988 and 2000, the formats have been governed in detail by secret memoranda of understanding (MOU) between the two major candidates; an MOU for 2004 was also negotiated, but unlike the earlier agreements it was jointly released by the two candidates.

“Debates are broadcast live on television and radio. The first debate for the 1960 election drew over 66 million viewers out of a population of 179 million, making it one of the most-watched broadcasts in U.S. television history.

“The 1980 debates drew 80 million viewers out of a 226 million.

“By 2000, about 46 million viewers out of a population of 280 million watched the first debate, with 10 million fewer watching the subsequent debates that year.

“In 2004, 62.5 million people watched the first debate, while 43.6 million watched the vice-presidential debate.

1960 debate between Kennedy and Nixon

“The first general election presidential debate was held on September 26, 1960, between U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, in Chicago at the studios of CBS’ WBBM-TV. “Television primes its audience to rely more on their perceptions of candidate image (e.g., integrity).

“At the same time, television has also coincided with the world becoming more polarized and ideologically driven.

“General election debates were not held for the elections of 1964, 1968 and 1972, although intra-party debates were held during the primaries between Democrats Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and between Democrats George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey in 1972.

“It was not until 1976 that a second series of televised presidential debates was held during the general election campaign season.

“The debates were sponsored by League of Women Voters. On September 23, 1976, Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter and Republican incumbent, President Gerald Ford agreed to three debates (one on domestic issues, one on foreign policy, and one on any topic) on television before studio audiences.

“A single vice-presidential debate was also held that year between Democratic Senator Walter Mondale and Republican Senator Bob Dole.

“The dramatic effect of televised presidential debates was demonstrated again in the 1976 debates between Ford and Carter.

“Ford had already cut into Carter’s large lead in the polls, and was generally viewed as having won the first debate on domestic policy. Polls released after this first debate indicated the race was even.

“However, in the second debate on foreign policy, Ford made what was widely viewed as a major blunder when he said ‘There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.’

“After this, Ford’s momentum stalled, and Carter won a very close election.

“Debates were a major factor again in 1980. Going into the debate, Jimmy Carter had a narrow lead over Ronald Reagan in a race considered ‘too close to call.’

“Reagan, with years of experience in front of a camera as an actor, came across much better than Carter and was judged by voters to have won the debate by a wide margin.

“This translated into Reagan turning a close election into a landslide victory. . .

“ The year 1992 featured the first debate involving both major-party candidates and a third-party candidate, billionaire Ross Perot running against President George H. W. Bush and Governor Bill Clinton. . .

“Saint Anselm College has hosted four debates throughout 2004 and 2008; it is a favorite for campaign stops and these national debates because of the college’s history in the New Hampshire primary.

“Washington University in St. Louis has hosted the debates three times (in 1992, 2000, and 2004), more than any other location.

“The university was also scheduled to host a debate in 1996, but it was later negotiated between the two presidential candidates to reduce the number of debates from three to two. The university hosted the only 2008 Vice Presidential debate, as well.”

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was established in 1987 to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.

Its primary purpose is to sponsor and produce debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates and to undertake research and educational activities relating to the debates. Go to

The Commission on Presidential Debates, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) corporation, sponsored all the presidential debates in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008.

Find more history on the presidential debates by going to the AllPolitics website:  

Look at YouTube archives of presidential debates by going to

To find the upcoming presidential debate schedule, bookmark the following:

Editor’s note: Howard Lestrud is ECM online managing editor.