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The Surprising History of Presidential Debates


What do Presidents Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson have in common with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton and Miramar, Fla. Mayor Wayne Messam (three Democrats who are currently running for the White House)?


None have ever had the opportunity to debate the individuals against whom they were vying for the White House.


The first presidential debate of the 2020 primary election season is one week away. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) announced last Friday that 20 of the 23 Democrats running for president – all but Bullock, Moulton and Messam – qualified for the contest, which will take place over two nights – June 26 and 27 – in Miami.


This first debate is limited to 20 candidates, and candidates were only invited to the stage if he or she fulfilled one or both of two requirements: garnered one percent or more support in three polls publicly released between January 1, 2019 and 14 days before the debate; or demonstrated his or her campaign received donations from at least 65,000 unique donors, including a minimum of 200 unique donors per state in at least 20 U.S. states.


NBC, the debate’s media sponsor, conducted a random drawing to decide how the candidates were split up over the two nights. The Democrats opted for the two-night, manual drawing format in reaction to how the Republican National Committee handled the large field of presidential candidates it had in 2016. Four years ago, the GOP held two separate sessions for most of its primary debates: an “undercard” debate for lower-polling candidates and another session for first-tier candidates.


Ever the progressives, the Democratic party decided that format was unfair and went for the drawing instead. Still, as Slate notes, the way the random selection came out, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) will be the only top-tier candidate to appear on the debate stage the first night. The other four in the top five – former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Mayor Pete Buttigieg – will all share the stage on the second night.


If this process seems overly complicated for a debate taking place almost a year and a half before an election, it’s because … it is.


Debate management has not always been like this. In fact, while Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas may have met seven times to debate during the 1858 U.S. Senate election in Illinois, debates between (or, in this cycle’s case, among) presidential candidates actually are a relatively new phenomenon. (The Lincoln-Douglas sparring, it turns out, was a pretty radical idea. According to Purdue University, they “were the first political, electoral debates held in the United States.”)


According to the Bill of Rights Institute, presidential candidates did not even do much campaigning on their own before the 20th century. Instead candidates seeking office “let their supporters do the heavy lifting of attacking opponents and persuading voters.” In current lingo, these supporters who travel the country and hit the airwaves to vouch for a candidate are called “surrogates” … and voters do not generally consider them adequate substitutes for the candidates themselves. (Though voters in swing states did likely enjoy getting to see Meryl Streep, Lena Dunham, and Alicia Keys – all Hillary Clinton surrogates – on the trail in 2016.)


In 1940, Republican candidate Wendell Willkie invited incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt to debate, but the commander in chief said no, alleging that Wilkie was just trying to get away with a publicity stunt. (An illustration of how much things have changed: the media at that time agreed.)


President Roosevelt instead conducted most of his campaign by radio.


The first presidential debate in U.S. history was not held until 1948, 90 years after Lincoln and Douglas met during their Senate contest – and even then it was not for a general election contest. New York Gov. Thomas Dewey and former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen debated on May 17, 1948 as they pursued the Republican nomination for president. The debate was only one hour long and addressed a single topic that captured the zeitgeist of the era: whether the United States should outlaw the Communist Party.


There were no debates, either during the primary or general election, in 1952, but in 1956, Democratic candidates Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver met during primary season. Rather than throwing red meat at the party’s base through a single question, this contest covered a wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues.


That contest did little to encourage the idea that debates are worthwhile. Here is the New York Times’ assessment of that meeting: “The nationally televised ‘debate’ found the two chief contenders for the Democratic Presidential nomination taking virtually identical positions on almost every issue discussed.”


The first presidential debate during a general election was famously between then-Sen. John F. Kennedy and then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon, who met on Sept. 26, 1960 for a one-hour session that more than 66 million Americans watched. The visual image of Nixon sweating, wiping his brow and avoiding looking at the camera is considered by historians to have had an impact on his eventual electoral un-success in that campaign. (Nixon must have agreed. He declined to debate his 1968 presidential opponent, Hubert Humphrey, and won the White House.)


Still, it was not only Nixon who dismissed the idea. Between 1961 and 1975, exactly zero presidential debates took place. Author and CNN contributor Bob Greene explained why in a 2012 story: “[T]he Federal Communications Commission’s equal-time provision, which mandated the inclusion of all candidates -- fringe ones as well as the nominees of the major parties.” That rule had been temporarily suspended in 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon met.

Candidates in the lead in 1964, 1968 and 1972 did not want to give their opponents a platform, or even dignify their candidacies by standing (or sitting) next to them. Greene explained, “[I]n 1972, when Nixon was the incumbent and far ahead in the polls, he barely deigned to say McGovern's name during the fall campaign, much less debate him.”


Our modern obsession with debate started, Greene says, only when the parties and candidates found a way around the FCC rule. Instead of networks sponsoring debates, outside groups, like the League of Women Voters, did. These groups were allowed to set their own criteria.


Fortunately (or not), the FCC changed its rule in 1983 so networks could sponsor a debate without the need to give candidates equal time.


So, how much time will each of the 20 candidates get in Miami? The debate will be a cumulative four hours. With 20 candidates, and moderators on stage, participants are expected to have only six to 10 minutes to speak.


Worried that might not be enough time for your favorite Democratic candidate? Thankfully (or not), you’ll have as many as eleven more opportunities to see them in action. There will be five more DNC-sanctioned debates in 2019, and then another six in 2020.

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