When the presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took the stage on Monday for their first round of presidential debates, it probably seemed like any other debate that we have watched in elections past aside from a few narrowing of the eyes, coughing and Trump’s oddball comments. However, televised debates have not always been around, and they’ve only been a regular feature during the election since 1976. Here are a few facts about the history of the presidential debates in the US.
When the very first American TV station started to broadcast in July of 1928, the first debate between major party presidential candidates wasn’t shown on TV. That didn’t happen until around 1960. THe candidates were then-serving Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, and then-serving VP Richard M. Nixon. Kennedy won the first debate and the election to follow.
More than 1 in 3 Americans or 66.4 million viewers tuned in for the first televised presidential debate, making it one of the most-watched broadcasts in television history. The U.S. population at the time was 180.7 million. Today, the U.S. population is estimated to be 324.7 million.
The 1960 presidential debate was a fatal one for Nixon, he was said to be ill and declined to wear any stage makeup for the first debate. When he returned as a presidential candidate in 1968, he declined to debate his opponent, then serving VP Hubert Humphrey. Nixon won the presidential election that year.
After the skipped debates in 1968, Americans would not watch another presidential debate on TV until 1976 when the eventual Presidential Jimmy Carter debated the then-serving President Gerald Ford. Presidential debates have been held in every presidential campaign since then.
In 1976 we were introduced to the Vice Presidential debates which have been regularly held since 1984. Although voters rarely pay attention and these debates are not typically memorable, there is one exception. I the 1988 debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen. Quayle suggested he had as much experience as former President John F. Kennedy. Bentsen replied with the famous lines “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
In the 1980 presidential debate against President Jimmy Carter, former President Ronald Reagan delivered the infamous line “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Voters answered, ushering Reagan in for two terms. Variations of that line has since been used by a number of presidential candidates.
When the incumbent President Ronald Reagan debated the former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984, there was a concern that Reagan was too old. At the age of 73, some voters were concerned that he was too old. Reagan countered by saying, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” which made even Mondale smile. For those keeping track, at the present time Hillary Clinton is 68 and Donald Trump is 70.
There are many people who falsely believe that the former President George H.W. Bush uttered the memorable phrase “Read my lips: no new taxes” during the presidential debates. He did not. He made that promise at the 1988 Republican National Convention when he accepted the Republican party’s nomination.
In 1992, the debates featured a third-party candidate for the first time, Independent candidate Ross Perot. He debated against President George H.W. Bush and the Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton. Clinton won the presidency that year. He was quoted during the October 15, 1992 debate saying “More women are being elected…and according to my mother, and my wife and daughter, this world would be a lot better place if women were running it.”
Hofstra University, which took over as the site for Monday’s debate after Wright State University withdrew, is the only school to host the presidential debate in three consecutive campaign cycles.
The most watched presidential debate ever was in 1980 between Reagan and Carter. 80.2 million individual viewers tuned in to watch. However, the Nielsen ranks the 2012 debate between President Barack Obama and then Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney was higher. It only drew in 67.2 million individual viewers, but the debate was watched by 46.2 million households, slightly more than the 45.8 million who tuned in to watch in 1980.
Since 1987, the bipartisan organization, Commission on Presidential Debates or CPD, has controlled presidential debates, including the locations and the moderators.
The 2008 debate showed how much technology is changing how the debates are orchestrated. Candidate questions were submitted by YouTube as well as questions from Facebook and that social influence has been apparent in all the debates since then. This year, live streams of the debates will be available to watch on YouTube and Twitter.