Editor’s note: Ruth Whitney is founder and CEO of InVeritas, a global public affairs firm. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.
The first two debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump became “must see TV” with a record 81.4 million people tuning in to their first meeting, breaking all-time numbers for debate viewership set in 1980.
But while most people think presidential debates are as much a part of the elections as conventions and constant television ads, the first debate didn’t occur until the famed 1960 debate between candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
In what has since been widely documented, Nixon – the sitting vice president and the favorite to win – lost the first debate, largely because he appeared tired and unpolished under the bright television stage lights. Kennedy, on the other hand, looked and sounded polished – aided by his wise decision to wear the stage makeup offered, which Nixon had refused.
Nixon’s poor showing illustrated the power of the burgeoning medium of television. In the following three campaigns the sitting president refused to debate any challenger. Sure, presidents might have gotten some bad press by not agreeing to a debate, but that was by far preferable to bad television exposure, which could sway millions of voters.
Certainly, there were other famous debates in American politics before 1960.
In the 1858 Illinois Senate race Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas squared off in seven debates that were three hours each. There was no moderator for the debates; instead, each man spoke for an hour before concluding with half hour rebuttals.
Thankfully, the format – and length – changed by the time presidential debates became tradition.
Gerald Ford brought back the televised presidential debates, which have continued in every general election since 1976.
In 1988, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates became the designated organization to host presidential debates. The CPD chooses the moderators and locations and oversees other details, such as height requirements for podiums and room temperatures at debate halls.
Vice presidential candidates also get their chance to debate. During the 1988 election, Vice President Dan Quayle, fighting back against claims he was too young for his office, pointed out he had just as much experience in Congress as Kennedy did when he was elected president. Lloyd Bentsen, the Democrat vice presidential candidate, quickly responded, “I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Maybe it’s these no-holds-barred moments that keep us tuning into debates, even when so many voters seem disengaged with politics.
In the 1980 debate, Ronald Reagan asked voters to consider whether their lives had improved during President Jimmy Carter’s administration.
“Ask yourself, ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago?”
The line has been frequently repeated by candidates in the intervening 36 years, but it was first uttered in a debate.
The rise of social media has certainly been influenced by presidential debates. Twitter was still a relatively new medium in 2012 when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney debated. Their 90-meeting debate generated 10.3 million tweets – a record breaker for the time.
But the 2016 election has proven to be one-of-a-kind, and the first debate between Clinton and Trump set a record for most-tweeted with 17.1 million interactions on Twitter. Facebook users also participated in the debate via social media. There were 55 million views of debate-related Facebook Live videos, and there were 65.9 million interactions on Facebook about the debate.
All this may sound like a bunch of random stats and numbers, but consider this: the United States has a population of 324 million, and its residents generated a whopping 83 million social media interactions on Facebook and Twitter during one debate.
Still think voters are unengaged? That’s hardly debatable.