Historic presidential debates that forever changed how and who we vote for

The kick-off for a series of three presidential debates between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump has finally arrived. Statistically and historically speaking, televised presidential debates do not strongly sway voters, but they certainly draw us to all tune in for these anticipated events. Introduced to the American public only some 60 years ago, who could imagine going through a presidential election without Biden versus Trump live debates?

Presidential debates have become a staple in our election process and a brutal political sport that most of us enjoy watching to see what these events will hold.

Up until the early 20th century, candidates relied on their supporters to do the hard work of their campaigning. But at the turn of a new era, presidents were expected to persuade their voters and attack their own rivals. The development of radio and media drastically changed this, presenting a stage for each candidate and high expectations for their performances.

As candidates for the Illinois Senate, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas helped set the stage for what was to come. They engaged in a series of seven debates, but without a mediator to tame the conversation or media to cover it. The Bill of Rights Institute recorded that these debates “… provided the conceptual framework which brought about formal presidential debates in the modern era. These debates helped establish the precedent that candidates should present their cases and state their criticisms before the public and engage in a constructive dialogue with each other about the future course of the nation.”

A century later, televised presidential debates premiered and have since become an asset for the country to watch and a crucial part of the election process.

Suddenly the world could watch and gather conclusions firsthand. As we all prepare for the upcoming presidential debates, let’s look back at several historic debates that have had a significant impact on the presidential election as we know it today.

1960 – Kennedy v. Nixon

The first-ever nationally televised presidential debate took place between Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy and Republican nominee Richard Nixon in 1960. Moments before their debate aired, JFK appeared calm and collected, as he and a nervous and perspiring Nixon prepared to deliver their respective cases for why they should be the next president.

That year presented a turning point for the course of an election, a pinnacle in its timeline and a reason for voters to bring out the popcorn. These debates continue to offer voters a fair opportunity to know who they want to vote into office. They create a visual account, a chance to gauge priorities and observe the nuances and character of each candidate.

1976 – Carter v. Ford

Following the Kennedy and Nixon debate in 1960, there were no formal debates for several terms until President Gerald Ford thought it essential to publicly debate the Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter. The two engaged in a series of three debates. During one memorable moment, Ford announced, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” The surprising statement even caught the attention of the mediator, Max Frankel of “The New York Times, who was unable to hold back his surprise: “I’m sorry, what? … did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there and making sure with their troops that it’s a communist zone…” This debate revealed the humanity of the candidates and the unique ability to catch vulnerable moments requiring immediate responses on live television.

1980 – Reagan v. Carter

There were two debates set for the 1980 election. With one of the second most-watched presidential debates in history, it captured 80.6 million viewers (just recently passed by Trump and Clinton’s in 2016). NBC News’ Adam Howard recalls, it “is now probably best remembered for Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory, which is credited with spawning a conservative revolution in this country.” Jimmy Carter spewed off facts and statistics, while Ronald Reagan gleamed his poise, character and off-the-cuff humor. Reagan’s delivery of compelling one-liners, such as “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” won the hearts of a nation. Candor of candidates could finally be captured on television and used as political dynamite.

1992 – Bush v. Clinton v. Perot

This unique debate included three candidates, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, reminding us that visual markers count. Many found Clinton to be likable, but when President Bush looked down at his watch, viewers interpreted that Bush had lost interest. When heavy emphasis can easily be placed on something as simple as glancing at a watch, these debates continue to reveal that every tilt of the head, eye roll and drink of water is counted.

2000 – Bush v. Gore

When the campaign between George W. Bush and former Vice President Al Gore kicked off, it appeared Gore would quickly and easily gain ground. But all three debates between the two allowed Bush to gain more ground as Gore appeared to lose momentum. It was a critical series of debates which revealed the impact of personalities, delivery and priorities in an election, and also led to a historical Florida recount.   

2012 – Obama v. Romney

When Mitt Romney challenged President Barack Obama, saying he did not want to call a recent embassy attack in Benghazi a terrorist attack, the mediator was able to track back on the transcript. They found Obama did in fact call it an “act of terror.” This moment revealed how the intensity and momentum of debates could construe the truth. But if offered barriers to keep communication clear and recall the very word in debate.

2016 – Trump v. Clinton

While the last election year was indeed marked with many historical moments and tensions, it represented the first in history that a nominated female candidate was present for a presidential debate. Although this 2020 presidential election will not include a female presidential candidate (but will for vice president), the 2016 debates marked a critical point in our nation’s history.

While many feel the presidential debates are imperative to the election, we continue to distance ourselves from discussing politics altogether. As we tune in to these debates, they influence and inform our votes. For decades, votes were based on an obscure and remote notion of candidates; however, we now have the luxury of a firsthand view of who and what we are voting for.

This rich history of compelling, merciless and entertaining debates not only sets the voter at an advantage, but reminds us of the vital role civil discourse plays in our government and society.