How long have presidential candidates debated each other?

Have presidential candidates always debated each other, or are debates a new development in presidential elections? Have debates generally played a significant role in election outcomes? How likely are the debates to effect the outcome of the election this year?

Presidential election debates are a surprisingly new feature of American politics. The first public debate between the two major party presidential candidates occurred in 1960 when John F. Kennedy faced off with Richard Nixon in four nationally televised debates. More than 60 million viewers watched each of the debates.

While the 1960 presidential debates have widely been credited with shaping the election and influencing the decisions of millions of voters, no presidential debates were held in the next three presidential elections. In 1976, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford became the second pair of presidential candidates in American history to meet in a series of public debates. Since that time, though, the major presidential candidates have met in debates every four years. The vice-presidential candidates have also debated in every election year since 1976 (with the exception of 1980).


"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. The organization, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan corporation, sponsored all the presidential debates in 1988, 1992, and 1996.

Following the recommendations of these two respected panels, the Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987. A nonpartisan, nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation, the CPD is not affiliated with any political party. It does not lobby, take positions on political issues, or report on elections. The CPD accepts no money from the government or political parties and it finances the debates entirely through private contributions."

From the CPD Website

Just how important are the debates?

Many voters watch the debates to find out where each of the candidates stands on the issues. Others watch to gauge how well the candidates hold up under pressure and how they think on their feet. Some voters simply want to "get to know" the candidates as people, to learn about their personalities.

However, a recent Gallup Poll suggests that the debates might not be a "big factor" for a large majority of voters. According to the poll, 71% of likely voters say that the debates won't significantly influence their vote for president this Fall. However, younger voters (especially younger female voters), moderates and independents say they are more likely to be influenced by the debates.

The importance of the debates in this year's presidential contest will likely be determined by how each candidate lives up to (or fails to live up to) expectations. The conventional wisdom is that Al Gore will perform better than George W. Bush in the upcoming debates. In fact, the poll cited above reveals that 46% of voters think Gore will perform better in the debates, compared to only 33% who think Bush will do better (the remaining 21% think they will both do well).

Given that the race is currently a dead-heat, Gore would appear to have more to lose in the debates than Bush. Voters expect Gore to do better than Bush in the debates. If he slips up or if Bush exceeds expectations, he could lose some voter support. At the same time, because voters already expect Bush to "lose" the debates, he can meet and even exceed expectations simply by holding his own against Gore. If Bush is perceived as outperforming Gore, he might realize a significant boost in voter support.

Because the race is so close just a month and a half away from election day, it appears that the debates this year will play an important role in shaping the preferences of voters, especially those who remain undecided. As you watch the debates, pay attention to the efforts of both candidates to reach the moderate "swing" voters who will likely determine the outcome of the election in November. Each candidate's success in reaching these voters will go a long way toward deciding who becomes the next President of the United States of America.

Additional Resources

The Commission on Presidential Debates