A History of Televised Presidential Debates & Memorable Moments

history of presidential debates

Tonight is the 2016 Presidential debate between Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump. It’s one that I’m certain most of the world will be watching. At least they ought to. That said, here’s a look at key moments and summaries of all the televised Presidential Debates since the first aired in 1960.

History of Televised Presidential Debates

John F. Kennedy vs Richard M. Nixon, 1960
History of Televised Presidential Debates

The first-ever televised Presidential Debate (known as The Great Debate) was that between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon held at WBBM-TV in Chicago, September 26, 1960. When network executives began organizing it, a pre-debate debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy began almost immediately. Disputes over location, format and dressing rooms transpired, but ultimately, the medium trumped the message. And so, the televised Presidential debate became a part of our political history.

(Photo by Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
(Photo by Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Because the debate was televised, appearances became a real factor in regards to public opinion for the first time. Kennedy looked confident and handsome, while Nixon, suffering from a knee injury appeared shaky, sweaty and pale. Successors didn’t forget it and many attribute the fact that we didn’t have another televised debate until 16 years later to that.

Mrs Kennedy watching the debate (AP photo Bill Chaplis)
Mrs Kennedy watching the debate on tv (AP photo Bill Chaplis)

If you wish to watch the 60 minute debate in full, you can view it here.

Kennedy Nixon Debate Transcript

Gerald Ford vs Jimmy Carter, 1976
After a sixteen-year absence, presidential debates were once again held and televised. The first of the three debates took place on September 23. Unlike the debates between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, the Ford-Carter debates of 1976 were each held before a studio audience, although the television networks were not allowed to show audience reaction shots.

carter vs ford

During the debate Ford famously uttered: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” The moderator, Max Frankel of the New York Times, responded incredulously, “I’m sorry, what? … did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there and making sure with their troops that it’s a communist zone?” But Ford refused to back down from his original statement, insisting that Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia are free from Soviet interference. The answer haunted him for the remainder of the campaign and arguably cost him the election. (wikipedia)

Memorable Moment:

Ford Carter Debate Transcript

Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter, 1980
On September 21st, John Anderson, a Republican Congressman from Illinois, chose to run as an Independent after Ronald Reagan received the Republican nomination. Anderson’s poll ratings at the time of the 1980 presidential debate qualified him, according to the League of Women Voters, to participate. President Carter refused to participate in a three-candidate debate and in his closing remarks, Anderson addressed Carter’s absence and refuted the charge that he was a “spoiler” by drawing a distinction between himself and Ronald Reagan.

carter vs reagan

Republican candidate Ronald Reagan made the most of President Carter’s absence from the first presidential debate of 1980. His closing arguments had a powerful effect, much as they would a month later in his debate with President Carter. (According to the League of Women Voters, Anderson’s subsequent decline in the poll ratings justified his exclusion from the second presidential debate.)

Carter did, however, participate in the second debate with Reagan which took place on October 29, 1980. One of the defining crises of President Carter’s presidency was the Iranian hostage crisis, and on the date of his only debate with Ronald Reagan, the hostages had been held for almost a year. President Carter addressed the issue in response to a question put to him by Barbara Walters.

In his closing remarks, Ronald Reagan asked a simple yet devastating question that would resonate with voters in 1980 and beyond: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” For many voters, the answer was clearly “No.”

One of the most famous sound bites from these debates were Reagan’s response to Carter’s points on healthcare: “Governor, There You Go Again.”

Memorable Moment:

Reagan Carter Debate Transcript

Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale, 1984
Performing below expectations in his first encounter with Walter Mondale, President Reagan was unable to use even his winning line from the 1980 debates effectively.

reagan vs Mondale

Walter Mondale performed surprisingly well in his first debate with President Ronald Reagan. He clearly scored points with his response to President Reagan’s bringing back his favorite line from the 1980 debate delivered to Jimmy Carter: “There you go again.”

Memorable Moment:

One of the issues in the 1984 presidential campaign was age. In 1984, Reagan was 73 years old. The first debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale was seen as a victory for Mondale primarily because Reagan appeared to be mentally disoriented. The debate raised questions about Reagan mental fitness given his age. Physically, Reagan was very fit, characterized by his “horseback riding and wood chopping, the rosy cheeks, the clear eyes.” But Mary McGrory of the Washington Post noted, “Voters are slow to change their minds. Reagan’s incoherence and malaise did not topple the two pillars of his strength: incumbency and a recovering economy. Voters’ faith may be shaken but not, so far, their fondness.” Thus, the age issue set the stage for the second presidential debate.

Memorable Moment:

Reagan Mondale Debate Transcript

George Bush vs Michael Dukakis, 1988
george bush jr vs dukakis

For the first time during a Presidential debate, the “Tell-Back” system was employed. This was a device that enabled viewers of the 1988 debates to immediately respond to the candidates as they debated one another. A bar on the bottom of the screen represented “the average audience response that will slide back and forth between Bush and Dukakis at the bottom of home screens.”

Moderator Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis a provocative question in the second debate which has become one of the debate’s most memorable moments.

Memorable Moment:

The Vice Presidential debate during this time between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle is best remembered by the moment after Quayle compared himself politically with John F. Kennedy. Bentsen fired back – right between the eyes. “Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. I served with him. He was my friend. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”

Memorable Moment:

Bush Dukakis Debate Transcript

George Bush vs Bill Clinton vs Ross Perot, 1992
For the first time, a third-party candidate participated in the general election debates with both the major party candidates. In response to the first question of the debate, Independent candidate, Texas businessman and billionaire Ross Perot explained what distinguished his candidacy from that of Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican incumbent George Bush.

George Bush vs Bill Clinton vs Ross Perot, 1992

Perot’s participation in the debates added a measure of spontaneity as well. One Washington Post writer even noted that Perot’s performance in the St. Louis debate was “sort of like Gabby Hayes in an old Roy Rogers western.”

The first 9 minutes of the debate:

During the campaign and in the debate, President Bush raised questions about Bill Clinton’s character and his activities as a Viet Nam War protestor. Bill Clinton responded with reference to George Bush’s father’s stand against McCarthyism.

The second debate between Bush, Clinton and Perot was notable for its unprecedented format. This debate featured an informal, town-hall format. Democratic candidate Bill Clinton performed well in the informal setting. Republican president George Bush, however, was less assured. After the debate, moderator Carole Simpson received some criticism for her handling of the audience and candidates.

The third and final debate between them represented President George Bush’s last chance to make an impression to a nationwide audience. Trailing badly in the polls, Bush took the offensive in the debate by tenaciously challenging Clinton’s record as Arkansas Governor. The resulting exchanges had more spark than the previous debates. (wikipedia)

Transcripts of the three 1992 debates between Bush, Clinton and Perot can be found here

Bill Clinton vs Bob Dole, 1996
Bill Clinton’s success with the informal, town-hall format in 1992 led to a similar format in his re-election campaign against Republican Senator Bob Dole. This time, however, there was no third party candidate and changes in moderator – audience interaction had been made in response to criticisms of the 1992 Richmond debates. Although toned down somewhat to fit the informal setting, Senator Dole continued his strategy of indirect references to scandal and ethical lapses within the Clinton administration.

Bill Clinton vs Bob Dole, 1996

Republican candidate Bob Dole’s strategy was to attack the Clinton administration with oblique references to ethical standards. In many ways, Dole’s sharp sense of humor defined his debating approach.

Domestic issues were at the center of the 1996 presidential election in the eyes of many voters, and this was reflected in the questions asked by the audience in the town-hall debate. Issues of education, health care, taxes, drugs, tobacco, and crime dominated. But as post-election turnout figures would confirm, and as this questioner suggests, not even domestic concerns could compel most voters to go to the polls in 1996. (wikipedia)

Memorable Moment:

First Clinton Dole Debate Transcript

George W. Bush vs Al Gore, 2000
In the opening of the first of three debates, Vice President Al Gore clarified his criticism of Governor George W. Bush’s leadership abilities. Gore commented that he was not questioning Bush’s overall experience – instead, he stated that Bush’s proposals raise that question. Bush offered a rebuttal by citing his experience as Texas governor, outlining his agenda, and attacking Gore as a proponent of big government.

George W. Bush vs Al Gore, 2000

Governor Bush and Vice President Gore outlined their visions of economic policy that feature distinct differences in how much of the federal budget surplus they would use, where those surplus dollars would go, and which groups of the population would get the principal benefits.

Al Gore’s endless sighing during the 2000 debate against George W. Bush sparked endless mockery, as did his decision to leave the podium and come within inches of Bush during a response. Four years later, debate organizers would amend the event’s rules to avoid such an episode, stipulating: “Each candidate may move about in a predesignated area.”

Formatted like a town meeting, the third and final debate between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore featured sharp policy contrasts, particularly in the issue of health care. Gore gave his perspective on moving toward universal health care coverage. He highlighted his plan to provide health care to every child in the United States by 2005. Bush offered his opposition to a national health care plan and argued against the federal government’s involvement in making decisions for consumers or providers. (wikipedia)

George W. Bush vs Al Gore – Presidential Debate highlights:

Bush Gore Debate Transcript

George W. Bush vs John Kerry, 2004
A memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Bush 2004 campaign and the Kerry 2004 campaign, covering in minute detail all aspects of the presidential candidate debates held between the two candidates was created. It was 32 pages long and dated September 20, 2004.

George W. Bush vs John Kerry, 2004

Originally, the Commission on Presidential Debates specified that the first debate would be focused on domestic policy and the third focused on foreign policy. Those terms were changed in an announcement by the CPD on September 24, when they agreed that foreign affairs and homeland security would be the primary topic for the first debate and domestic and economic policy will be the primary topic of the third debate. More broadly, it also agreed to make a “good faith effort” to accommodate the rest of the terms of the MOU.

The September 24 announcement, which was released in the format of a copy of a letter sent to the two campaigns, also noted CPD’s pleasure at the willingness of the two campaigns to participate in the second, “town meeting”-style debate, yet was ambiguous about just what had been agreed to. (wikipedia)

62.5 million people tuned into these debates, an increase of just over 35 percent from 2000.

Bush Kerry Debate Transcript

John McCain vs Barack Obama, 2008
The first of the three Presidential debates focused on Foreign Policy and National Security with the second and third focusing on all topics. Of the three debates, the second, which was held in a town-hall format, had the largest viewing audience with 69.9 million people watching (Data provided by Nielsen Media Research).

John McCain vs Barack Obama, 2008

A CBS poll conducted after the debate on independent voters found that 38% felt it was a draw, 40% felt Obama had won, and 22% thought that McCain had won. Voters and analysts agreed that Obama had won on the economy, but that McCain had done better on foreign policy issues, which were the focus of the debate. However, Obama had a more substantial lead on the economy than McCain did on foreign policy. (wikipedia)

Highlights from the debate:

Several media outlets, especially those on the Internet, reported controversy over McCain referring to Obama as “that one” while discussing energy policy. Many critics of McCain, including the Obama campaign, compared it to the first debate, when McCain did not look at Obama. This incident was recreated on Saturday Night Live, with the actor portraying McCain referring to his opponent as “this character here,” “junior,” and “pee-pants.” Many comedy show performers – Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart and the Saturday Night Live crew – also lampooned McCain’s habit of “wandering aimlessly about the stage” during the debate while Obama was speaking.

“Joe the Plumber” aka Samuel J. Wurzelbacher
“Joe the Plumber” aka Samuel J. Wurzelbacher

“Joe the Plumber” aka Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, became nationally known when Senator John McCain made him a major talking point at the third and final presidential debate.

Memorable Moment:

Transcripts for the McCain Obama Debates

Barack Obama vs Mitt Romney
Barack Obama vs Mitt Romney

There were three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate during the 2012 general election.

According to the memorandum of understanding agreed to by both campaigns prior to the debate, and announced to the public prior to the start, both candidates would have no opening statement. There were six 15 minute segments, with the moderator introducing a topic and giving one candidate two minutes, the other candidate two minutes, and approximately 8 minutes and 45 seconds of facilitated discussion between the two candidates, with both candidates receiving approximately equal time. However, due to candidate responses extending beyond the limit, the last few segments were markedly shorter. Both candidates spoke in front of a podium. Other than applause at the beginning and end of the debate, there was no audience participation. (wikipedia)

The segments were on the economy and job creation, the federal deficit, entitlements and differences between the candidates on Social Security, health care and the Affordable Care Act, the role and mission of the federal government of the United States, and governing in a presidential system and dealing with gridlock.

Key moments in the first Obama Romney debate:

The second debate dealt primarily with domestic affairs, but, unlike the first debate, did include some segues into foreign policy. Topics discussed included taxes, unemployment, job creation, the national debt, energy and energy independence, women’s rights, both legal and illegal immigration, and the recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

In the third debate, topics discussed included the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Iran’s nuclear program, the Arab Spring, especially the Syrian civil war, relations with Israel, relations with Pakistan, the War on Terror, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the size and scope of the U.S. military, and relations and trade with China, as well as the rise of that nation. Governor Romney also briefly broached the subject of the ongoing insurgency in Mali. Although the debate was supposed to strictly concern only foreign policy, the candidates did manage to fit a few domestic policy issues, such as job creation, the federal deficit, and education into the discussion. (wikipedia)

Forbes’ Best Moments of the Debate: How Obama Won

Obama Romney Debate Transcript

And now, some interesting related videos for you.

The Evolution Of Presidential Debates by NBC News:

Best moments from Presidential Debates by Anderson Cooper for CNN:

Information courtesy of the following sources:
History of Televised Presidential Debates, The Commission on Presidential Debates
Wall Street Journal, CNN and Wikipedia