With the fate of tonight's first presidential debate still uncertain, it is a good time to look back at when the tradition of holding presidential debates first began. Because the names "Lincoln" and "Douglas" can barely be mentioned without an association with debating, one might assume that the practice of holding presidential debates goes back at least 150 years.
Presidential debates are actually a relatively recent practice. The Lincoln-Douglas debates attracted the attention of the entire nation since much of their subject matter had to do with free vs. slave states which was of heightened interest at the time, but Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were actually vying for a senatorial seat in Illinois, and the debates were held in 1858 at seven sites throughout that state. Douglas was the incumbent, and Lincoln lost the senatorial race to him, but of course, Lincoln went on to beat Douglas in the 1860 race for the presidency.
While there were intra-party debates in the mid-twentieth century, the first scheduled presidential debate did not occur until 1960. The idea of a debate as a method for letting voters hear for themselves what candidates thought had been floated out in 1956 by a University of Maryland student by the name of Fred A. Kahn. What is sometimes forgotten about this first debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy is that there were two versions of who "won." Nixon had been hospitalized earlier in the month for a knee injury and looked haggard and worn to the television audience, and those who watched the debate felt Kennedy had presented himself admirably. Those who heard the debate on the radio felt as though Nixon presented as the better candidate. Certainly this was one of the first signs of the major influence television would have on all future campaigns.
Presidential debates were not held in 1964, 1968, and 1972, though there were some intra-party debates held during the primaries. In 1976 Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter and Republican incumbent President Gerald Ford agreed on a schedule of three debates, each one devoted to a separate topic. The debate focusing foreign policy was considered a "game-changer." Ford noted that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." Ford was unable to recover from this blunder, and Carter went on to win the election.
The debates are currently sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a group that is made up of former chairs of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees, but some of the earlier debates had been sponsored by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, which sponsored the debates in 1976, 1980, and 1984. The League pulled out in 1987 with a very pointed announcement, noting that the debates were no longer an "independent" event, with the candidates' organizations pushing and pulling to make the debates best suit their needs: "It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity, and answers to tough questions..." The statement concluded by saying that the League could no longer be an "accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."
There is no more important time than now for voters to hear the candidates answer tough questions. What will happen tonight?