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Presidential Debate History

• In 1948, the first public debate among presidential candidates was held, between Thomas E. Dewey and Harold Stassen, a radio broadcast in connection with the Oregon Republican presidential primary.

• The first televised debate occurred in 1956, between contestants for the Democratic presidential nomination: Adlai Stevenson (search) and Estes Kefauver (search).

• 1948 and 1956 were the only public debates among presidential candidates prior to 1960.

• The first nationally televised presidential debate among general election contenders was held in 1960, and since 1976, these events have become a regular fixture of presidential elections.
 
The 1960 Debates:

• In 1960, proposals were advanced for a series of televised debates between the major party nominees in the general election.

• However, an obstacle to such debates lay in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) interpretation of the Federal Communications Act’s “equal time” provision as it applied to political broadcast debates.
          — Under this interpretation, TV networks would be required to give equal time to presidential candidates of the numerous minor parties if they broadcast the Kennedy-Nixon debates.

• In Public Law 86-677, Congress temporarily suspended the equal time rule for presidential candidates for the duration of the 1960 campaign, paving the way for four debates between John F. Kennedy (search) and Richard M. Nixon (search), sponsored by the three commercial networks.

• Following the 1960 campaign, the FCC returned to strict enforcement of the equal time rule.  
          — Furthermore, at least one of the major party candidates in the next three elections (Lyndon Johnson (search) in 1964 and Nixon in 1968 and 1972) expressed reluctance or unwillingness to participate in televised debates. 
          — There were no presidential debates between 1960 and 1976. 
 
Presidential Debates Since 1976:

• Since 1976, televised debates have become a regular, expected feature of presidential campaigns, both in the primary and general elections.

• In 1975, the FCC reversed its longstanding interpretation of the equal time rule [Aspen Institute, 55 F.C.C.2d 697 (1975)] when it established an exemption for debates by qualified major party candidates as long as they were conducted as bona fide news events, sponsored by non-broadcast entities, and covered in their entirety.

• The following year, the League of Women Voters Education Fund (search), a non-partisan public interest group, sponsored a series of three presidential debates between nominees Jimmy Carter (search) and Gerald Ford (search), and one vice-presidential debate between their respective running mates, Walter Mondale (search) and Robert Dole (search).

• In 1980, President Carter declined to participate in any debate that included Independent John Anderson, whom the League invited based on his public opinion poll standing.
          — The Fund ultimately sponsored two debates, one in which only Anderson and Republican Ronald Reagan (search) participated, and the second with only Carter and Reagan (Anderson no longer met the Fund’s criteria by that point).

• In 1983, the FCC modified its earlier ruling when it allowed broadcasters, principally the commercial networks, to sponsor debates.

• Through 1992, debates generally followed a familiar format: candidates appeared before a panel of journalists, made an opening statement, took questions from the panel, heard rebuttal by the opponent, and generally ended with closing statements.

• In 1984, President Ronald Reagan met Democrat Mondale in two debates sponsored by the Fund, while their running mates — George Bush (search) and Geraldine Ferraro (search)—debated in a single meeting.

• In 1985, in an effort to assert party control over the debates, the Chairs of the Democratic and Republican National Committees collaborated to establish a non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates. 
          — The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was officially established in 1987.
          — The CPD is the non-partisan, non-profit, tax-exempt, (501)(c)(3) organization. 

• After protracted negotiations, a 1988 agreement called for commission sponsorship of the first of two presidential debates, with the Fund sponsoring the second.

• Eventually, the Fund withdrew altogether, and the Commission sponsored both presidential events and the single vice presidential debate held in 1988.
          — The Commission on Presidential Debates sponsored all the presidential debates in 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000. 
          — Previous debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters (1976, 1980, and 1984) and the networks (1960).

• Debates in 1992 were agreed to after an even longer struggle between Democrats and Republicans, with the plan featuring three presidential and one vice presidential Commission-sponsored debates and including Independents Ross Perot (search) and James Stockdale (search). 
          — The Commission experimented with different formats for each debate, including: moderator and panel of journalists (the traditional format); single moderator and audience questions; moderator and panel of journalists, each responsible for half the time; and single moderator and free-form discussion among participants.

• In 1996, Bill Clinton (search) (D) and Dole (R) debated once with a single moderator questioning them and then in a town hall meeting in which citizens posed questions. In the vice presidential debate, a single moderator questioned Democrat Al Gore (search) and Republican Jack Kemp (search).