Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts, rivals for the presidency, engaged in an informal discussion in the television studio in Washington on October 8, 1960, after going off the air on their nation televised debate. Nixon holds a handkerchief in his hand as he talks with Kennedy. The debate was the second in the pre-elect series to discuss campaign issues.
The first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will be Wednesday at 9 p.m. Eastern. To get everyone ready, we answer some questions you may have.
How did we get here?
For most of American history, the idea of two presidential candidates debating was unheard of, though candidates for lesser offices did debate. James Madison and James Monroe traveled Virginia together debating for a House seat in 1788, and of course Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated during their 1858 Senate campaign, though the Lincoln-Douglas debates resembled a pair of speeches much more than the debates we know today. In 1948, Republican presidential candidates Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey debated on a radio broadcast carried across the country; eight years later, Democratic candidates Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver did the same on television. But it was 1960, in the first general-election presidential debate, that the format was established in a form recognizable today.
The Kennedy-Nixon debates are widely understood as the seminal moment in the joining of television and politics. You've probably heard that voters who watched the first debate on television thought that Kennedy won, while those who listened to it on radio thought Nixon won. While it's certainly true that Kennedy looked much better than Nixon—better suit, better makeup, better hair, all-around better-looking guy—it turns out there is virtually no evidence for this widely-believed factoid. The entire story is based on a single poll with a tiny sample that may have reflected the fact that many voters who listened on radio were more likely to be rural Protestants, who weren't voting for Kennedy anyway (Mark Blumenthal has a good explanation here).
In the years since, the Kennedy-Nixon debates have been seen as the moment when television took over presidential politics and image overcame substance. But to look back at them now, the Kennedy-Nixon debates are absolutely dripping with substance. Both candidates were extremely well informed and gave lengthy, detailed answers on a variety of policy issues. The debates were, to be frank, rather dull. There were no zingers, no folksy posturing, no pounding of podiums.
In this excerpt from the beginning of the first debate, you can see Kennedy's confidence and Nixon's unease. You also see that things didn't run perfectly smoothly—at first, Kennedy isn't aware he's supposed to stand at the podium, and when given the opportunity to respond to what Kennedy has said, Nixon says, "I have no comment." And yes, Nixon is very, very sweaty.
Despite the limited razzle-dazzle, the Kennedy-Nixon debates drew huge audiences, some of the biggest television has ever seen (we'll discuss the matter of who watches later). Nevertheless, it was some time before candidates felt they had no choice but to debate. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson, enjoying a huge lead over his opponent Barry Goldwater, refused to debate. Scarred by the effect he believed his 1960 performance had on his candidacy, Richard Nixon refused in 1968 and 1972. So 16 years passed between the Kennedy-Nixon debates and the next, in 1976. Televised debates have been held in every presidential election since, though the number and formats have varied.
How are the debates going to work this time?
The format and topics of the debates are negotiated between the candidates and the Commission on Presidential Debates, which sounds like some kind of quasi-governmental entity, but isn't. It was set up before the 1988 election by two former party chairs, Frank Fahrenkopf (the Republican) and Paul Kirk (the Democrat), in part to make sure no pesky minor-party candidates got to participate.
Until 1996, the debates featured a panel of journalists who would take turns asking the candidates questions. Unfortunately, the journalists usually seemed more interested in producing a dramatic "decisive moment" than they were in generating an edifying discussion. So you had moments like Bernard Shaw asking Michael Dukakis whether he would change his position on the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered, or the brutal tag-teaming the entire panel gave to Dan Quayle once he proved unable to answer a question about what he would do if he suddenly became president.
In 1996, the commission settled on two formats: one with a single moderator (PBS's Jim Lehrer has handled most of the duties), and another with a "town meeting" format, in which a group of independent voters are selected to ask questions. Generally speaking, the town hall participants have asked questions that are more substantive and cover a wider policy ground than those asked by reporters (for instance, they don't bother asking "Why is your campaign not getting traction" to whoever's behind, as reporters for some reason feel compelled to do). This does introduce a potentially destabilizing factor, since the candidates have to both answer unexpected questions and interact with voters, and will be judged on both. There was never a more vivid contrast than in 1992, when George H.W. Bush struggled to answer a woman's question about how the national debt had personally affected him (he made the mistake of taking it literally, leading to his understandable confusion). When it came time for Bill Clinton's response, he walked over to the woman, looked her in the eye, and said, "Tell me how it's affected you."
This year there will be three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate, all 90 minutes long. Each will have a single moderator, with Jim Lehrer handling the first, CNN's Candy Crowley the second, ABC's Martha Raddatz the VP debate, and CBS's Bob Schieffer the final one. Crowley's will be a town meeting. The first will cover domestic policy, the second and VP one will be on all topics, and the final debate will be on foreign policy.
Who watches these things?
When Kennedy and Nixon had their debates, it was little exaggeration to say that nearly the whole country stopped and watched. The three debates got Nielsen ratings of around 60, meaning that the debates were on in 60 percent of all homes that owned televisions. The third debate's rating of 61 was higher than any since, though the one debate in 1980 between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan came close.
Since then, however, viewership has declined significantly. The nadir was reached in 2000, when the final debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore got a rating of only 25.9. Viewership rebounded somewhat in 2008, but the highest-rated debate that year—the second—got a rating of only 38.8. For comparison, the most watched broadcast of the year—the Super Bowl—gets ratings in the mid-50s. So while the 1960 debates got Super Bowl-type ratings, debates in recent years have gotten ratings about 20 points lower. That means that though today's population is almost twice what it was in 1960, the total number of people watching isn't much higher than it was then.
That's still a lot of people, even if most voters won't be watching. But the debate audience is likely to consist mostly of partisans who have made up their minds already. That's particularly true this year, when there are so few undecided voters left. But by necessity, the debates come near the end of the campaign, after the party conventions, which means that the race has probably settled into a place it won't move too far from.
What difference do those zingers make, anyway?
Think about it this way: What do you remember from the 2008 debates? It was only four years ago. Hmm … well, John McCain dismissively referred to Barack Obama as "that one," as though he were McCain's troublemaking grandson. And Sarah Palin winked, right? Anything else? Nope.
The reason you don't remember anything is that it has been a number of elections since we've had one of those "decisive moments." It isn't that the moments—George H.W. Bush looking impatiently at his watch, Lloyd Bentsen telling Quayle, "You're no Jack Kennedy," Dukakis failing to bellow with rage and announce he was changing his position on the death penalty—made such an impact on everyone watching at the time that they stuck in all our memories. Instead, what happened was that reporters decided those were the key moments, and kept writing and talking about them in the subsequent days and weeks. Not coincidentally, the moments that get chosen are those that reinforce the conclusions the press has already come to about a candidate's character weaknesses. Reporters thought that H.W. was disconnected, that Dukakis was a bloodless technocrat, that Quayle was a lightweight. So when those moments came up, they said, "Aha! Just as we've said all along!" Because they kept talking about them, we remember them.
But that doesn't mean these moments determine who wins the election. Political scientists and communication scholars have tried to identify cases in which a debate truly altered a race, and they've largely come up empty. Media discussion of those decisive moments may influence which candidate voters believe "won" the debate, but that's a judgment without much consequence. Some research has shown that all that post-debate coverage can make an impact on how positively people think of the candidates, particularly voters who don't watch the debates and thus are going only on what they learned in the media (see here, for example), but it's a long way from that to actually changing the outcome of the race.
Does all the expectations-gaming work?
The campaigns obviously understand that how the press talks about the debate afterward will end up taking a larger place in people's minds than what actually went on in the debates themselves, particularly since a majority of Americans won't actually tune in. So before the campaigns begin, they relentlessly try to influence the expectations reporters will bring to the debate. This usually involves claiming that your own candidate is such a bumbling fool he'll be lucky if he can string two coherent sentences together, while your opponent is a near-god-like combination of Cicero, Clarence Darrow, and Martin Luther King. The ne plus ultra of this piece of spin was undoubtedly Karl Rove's 2000 description of Al Gore as "the world's most pre-eminent debater, a man who is more proficient at hand-to-hand debate combat than anybody the world has ever seen." Rove's ability to slew that kind of bullshit with a straight face is part of what earned him such respect from the nation's press corps.
But by now, reporters have gotten so used to this game that they're unlikely to be affected much by it. That's particularly true this year, when there are no unknown quantities. Three of the four candidates have plenty of debating experience, and all four are not only familiar to the press but have deserved reputations as politicians who are perfectly capable of talking about policy for an hour and a half.
So why do the debates matter?
The debates don't have to contain shocking moments or turn a loser into a winner and vice versa in order to be useful to the democratic process. We get to see how the candidates react to a high-pressure situation, even if it isn't quite the same kind of pressure they'll face in the Oval Office. As the most extended look the public gets at the candidates during the course of a campaign, debates usually produce demonstrable learning about issues on the part of those who do watch. Particularly during the less-predictable town hall debate, the candidates may be forced to take a stand on issues that haven't been discussed before. Who knows—maybe this year, for the first time, the debates will prove so spectacular (or catastrophic) for one of the candidates that the race will be decided by what happens there. Even if not, they're still worth watching.