Skip to main content

Main Area


History of presidential debates

  • History of presidential debates

    The 2020 presidential debate series has already proven to be historic, marred by a contentious first-debate performance by President Trump with subsequent debates thrown into disarray amid the president's COVID-19 diagnosis. The Oct. 7 vice presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence features a wider distance between the candidates and plexiglass dividers that will stand between Harris and Pence as well as between the candidates and the evening's moderator, Susan Page of USA Today. As of press time, Trump said he plans to debate Biden in-person on Oct. 15 despite Trump's ongoing battle with COVID-19 and potential for transmission.

    To better understand the significance and context around 2020's debate headlines, Stacker is taking a look back at the history of presidential debates. From their inception, forged in a senatorial debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, to today when safety precautions amid the coronavirus will undoubtedly set the tone, presidential debates have punctuated the times they’re in and dictated how the country moves forward through catastrophes and challenges not entirely dissimilar from the times now confronted.

    Keep reading to learn more about the history of presidential debates and how they’ve influenced the way we understand presidential elections today.

    You may also like: Defining historical moments from the year you were born

  • 1858: Senatorial debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas

    Presidential debates in the United States were inspired by a famous Illinois senatorial debate in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and incumbent Stephen Douglas that was held without a moderator or panel. As Douglas campaigned around Illinois, Lincoln attended his opponent’s campaign speeches and heckled Douglas from the crowd. Lincoln’s antics drummed up sufficient attention, and finally he and Douglass met for a three-hour debate during which the men discussed slavery and various conspiracy theories.

    Douglas won the Senate seat, and Lincoln didn’t participate in any debates in 1860 during his run for president. Nevertheless, the men’s debate set a stage for the use of debates in future election cycles. The 2016 debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were likened by many historians to the Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858.

  • Debate-free presidential campaigns preside

    More than a dozen election cycles passed without significant debates between candidates. Instead, presidential hopefuls responded to each other’s comments during speeches along the campaign trail.

  • 1948: Radio broadcast of Republican primary debate

    Republicans Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen participated in a presidential primary debate broadcast by radio. During the debate, the men traded barbs over the legal status of the Communist Party of the United States.

  • 1952: First televised debate with all candidates

    The League of Women voters in 1952 hosted the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history for a nationwide audience. Every major candidate from both parties attended, standing in stark contrast to today’s debates that include just the nominated candidate from each party.

  • 1956: First televised presidential debate for the two nominees

    Democrat Adlai Stevenson challenged incumbent Republican President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, but the debate for that election didn’t include either of them. Surrogates former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and senior Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith debated on behalf of the Democrat and Republican, respectively.


  • 1960: The famous Kennedy-Nixon televised debates

    Despite two other presidential debates being aired on TV in 1952 and 1956, the debates between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard M. Nixon in 1960 are widely remembered as the first televised presidential debates. Because of this series, debating was eventually seen as the norm in campaigns and became an integral element to running for president.

  • 1964: Lyndon Johnson refuses to debate

    Despite the popularity of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, President Lyndon B. Johnson turned down requests to debate the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. In so doing, Johnson touched off a 16-year period of no presidential debate series being held.

  • 1968: Nixon won’t debate

    Following President Johnson’s lead, Richard Nixon turned down the debate stage in 1968. He defeated Hubert Humphrey, the incumbent Democratic vice president, in the election. He’d repeat the move of refusing the debate in 1972 as well.

  • 1970: Nixon overrides repeal of the equal-time rule in elections

    President Nixon in 1970 overrode a bill that had repealed the equal-time rule of the Communications Act of 1934. The law mandated that national level candidates be granted equal exposure in the media. In his actions, Nixon ensured that candidates could hobble their opponents by turning down the opportunity to debate.

  • 1972: Nixon refuses another debate

    President Richard Nixon refused to debate his political opponent again in 1972. The incumbent coasted into reelection, defeating Democratic U.S. Sen. George McGovern.


2018 All rights reserved.