Presidential Debates: HNN Scrapbook

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Mr. Bosworth is an HNN intern. He graduated with a degree in history from Whitman College in May.


  • After the first televised debate in 1960, when Vice President Nixon saw his solid lead in the polls evaporate after debating the photogenic Kennedy, Press Secretary James Hagerty predicted, "you can bet your bottom dollar that no incumbent president will ever engage in any such debate or joint appearance in the future."
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson avoided debating Barry Goldwater in 1964 through a technicality. Section 315 of the Communications Act reserved equal air time for all candidates, not just those belonging to the Republican or Democratic parties. Johnson claimed that a debate would give himself and Goldwater an unfair advantage over third party candidates. (In 1960 an exemption from the law was approvd by Congress.) Note: President Kennedy had considered debating Goldwater frequntly during the 1964 election.
  • Having learned his lesson in 1960, Nixon used the Communications Act to avoid debates during the 1968 and 1972 elections. The Federal Communications Commission decided that Section 315 did not apply to presidential debates in 1975.
  • In 1984 President Ronald Reagan agreed to debate Walter Mondale despite holding a massive lead in the polls. In the words of historian Alan Schroeder, Reagan's decision "shored up campaign debates as a permanent institution."
  • By 1992, the American public had come to expect debates. When President George H.W. Bush pulled out of a debate in Michigan, "Chicken George" protestors dressed in chicken suits began to arrive at Bush campaign events. The pressure forced Bush to agree to three debates with Clinton and Ross Perot.
  • In 1996 President Clinton, enjoying a sizable lead in the polls, scheduled his last debate with Bob Dole to occur during a televised baseball game. Advisor George Stephanopoulos commented: "we didn't want people watching the debates."

Appearing Presidential

  • In 1960 Kennedy inserted the requirement that both candidates stand in order to exploit the fact that Nixon had sprained his knee. Nixon shifted his weight during the debates, an action that looked uncertain and nervous.
  • During the first debate of 1976, the sound system went out. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter stood rigidly at their lecterns for more than twenty minutes while technicians worked to restore audio.
  • Carter demanded a smaller lectern to stand behind in order to mask his shorter height. In return, President Ford was permitted to pick a background color that would mask the fact that the president was balding.
  • President Ford wanted to attach the presidential seal to his lectern for his debates with Carter. President Carter proposed the same thing during negotiations with Reagan four years later.
  • Michael Dukakis, six inches shorter than Vice President George H.W. Bush, arranged in 1988 to stand on a ramp that would raise him up to Bush's height.
  • Geoge H.W. Bush preferred to stand on the right side of the stage to hide his receding hair line.


  • The first town hall debate (where undecided voters are allowed to ask the candidates questions) began at the behest of Clinton in 1992. Clinton advisors wanted to showcase the future president's people skills.
  • Debates are usually scheduled to last 90 minutes. The longest debate lasted 100 minutes, during the first Reagan - Mondale debate. Reagan had originally wanted the 1984 debates to last just 60 minutes each.
  • The Commission on Presidential Debates invited Perot to the first three-way debate in 1992. The Commission decided that Perot did not have enough popular support to merit inclusion in the 1996 debates.
  • The most debates in any one year was four, in 1960.
  • The fewest number of debates occurred in 1980. President Carter boycotted one debate, and then engaged in a disastrous debate with Reagan one week before the election.
  • In 1984, Mondale and Reagan rejected a combined 83 journalists as debate panelists. The League of Women Voters condemned both campaigns for "totally abus[ing]" the process.


  • Bob Dole spent little time preparing for his 1996 debates with President Clinton. President Nixon refused to spend any time preparing for his debates with Kennedy in 1960. Both men lost their respective elections.
  • Candidates can be equally hurt by preparing for the wrong kind of debate. In 1984 Reagan entered the first debate with Mondale expecting to be attacked. When he was not, a confused Reagan floundered throughout the debate.
  • Clinton researched debates in both 1996 and 1992 extensively. In 1992 advisor Harry Thomason arranged for camera shots of Clinton to include Bush or Perot in the background, reacting to Clinton's speech. Clinton came off looking like the strongest of the candidates.
  • Ford was the first candidate to act out an entire debate with his advisors to prepare for the 1976 debates.
  • Reagan rehearsed his 1980 line "There you go again," in order to make it seem spontaneous.


  • "TV favors the underdog," in the words of Alan Schroeder. Ever since Nixon lost the 1960 election, the frontrunner's campaign has typically tried to reduce the number of debates, while the candidate who is behind has tried to increase the number.
  • James Baker, who famously suckered Carter into a late debate with Reagan, argues that once debates are scheduled, the polls "freeze." Remaining undecided voters wait until after viewing the debates to make up their mind.
  • Cartoon characterizations win debates. Mondale made Reagan seem old in 1984 at their fist debate, Clinton made George H.W. Bush look out of touch in 1992, and Dukakis came across as wooden after the 1988 debates.
  • Vice presidential candidates can attack their opponents with few negative consequences. Lloyd Bentsen demolished Dan Quayle in 1988 by referring to him as "no Jack Kennedy." Quayle tried to return the favor in 1992 by attacking Clinton's character.
  • Catchy slogans can convince the American voter better than factual information. Reagan managed to erase all concerns about his position on Medicare with four words to Carter: "there you go again." Similarly, Clinton gained a strong following with American women despite allegations of his infidelity by telling audiences that he felt their pain.
  • Televised debates favor politicians who are able to appear charming and at ease while on the stage. Kennedy trounced a sweating Nixon in 1960. Clinton played to the audience in 1992 by stepping off the debate stage and into the crowd. Former Hollywood star Reagan famously quipped when asked if he was nervous to stand on the same stage as President Carter: "Not at all. I've been on the same stage with John Wayne."

Related Links

  • Rick Shenkman: History Proves that Presidential Debates Matter

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    Gene Charles Gerard - 6/11/2005

    A very interesting discussion!

    Gene Gerard