Milestones in Presidential Debates

Memorable events from the U.S. presidential and vice presidential debates

by Beth Rowen
John Kennedy

John Kennedy

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Many voters rely on the presidential and vice presidential debates to help them decide which candidate they will vote for on Election Day. The presidential debates are a modern phenomenon, beginning in 1960. Here’s a look at some of the milestones in debate history.

1960
The first-ever presidential debates were held. The televised debate clearly illustrated the importance of make up and appearing telegenic. Indeed, Democratic candidate Sen. John Kennedy’s dark suit contrasted nicely with the gray set and his make up gave him the appearance of health and youth. Republican candidate Vice President Richard Nixon on the other hand, was pale and sweaty, suffering from the flu. He didn’t wear make up, and his gray suit caused him to blend in with the background.
1976
The debate between President Ford and Democrat Gov. Jimmy Carter marked the first time an incumbent president participated in a debate.
1980
President Jimmy Carter refused to participate in the first presidential debate on Sept. 21, 1980, because Independent candidate John Anderson was included in the forum. It was also the first time a third-party candidate took part in a presidential debate.
1987
The Democratic and Republican parties created the Commission on Presidential Debates, which organizes the debates. It outlined standards that third-party candidates must meet to participate in the debates.
1992
The second debate between Democrat Bill Clinton, President George Bush, and Reform Party founder Ross Perot featured the first-ever town-hall format. The candidates answered questions from the audience, which was composed of 209 undecided voters.
1996
The second debate, on Oct. 16, 1996, between President Bill Clinton and Republican candidate, Sen. Bob Dole, was the least-watched debate in history. Only 36.3 million people tuned in.
2000
According to Gallup poll analysts, the presidential debates of 2000 were the first since 1960 to play a clear role in the outcome of the yearbs election. Al Gore led George W. Bush by 8 percentage points going into the debates and emerged from the debate period trailing by 4 points due to "meaningful shifts in the horse races for those elections, whereby the ultimate winner moved from a deficit position to front-runner."

Sometimes the memorable moments are wordless; body language can significantly impact a viewerbs assessment of a candidate. In their first debate, Vice President Al Gorebs repeated sighs and eye rolling during Gov. George W. Bushbs responses, coupled with a naturally stiff manner, came across as condescending. Then, in a later debate, there was a moment when Bush was answering a question and Gore came down from his chair and clearly entered Bushbs personal space. A surprised Bush paused mid-speech and gave Gore a good-natured nod, eliciting loud laughter from the audience.
2012
The presidential debate season of 2012 consisted of three events: Oct. 3 in Denver, Oct. 16 in New York, and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton. The clear consensus was that the first debate redefined the race, pulling Romney from a 8-point deficit to a 4-point lead among likely voters. The next two debates combined to narrow the margin, leading poll analysts to conclude the race a "dead heat," with Romney and Obama both at 47% in polls conducted by the Pew Research Center.

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