What you need to know about the history of presidential debates


President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump’s decision Wednesday to agree to two presidential debates will continue a tradition dating back to 1960.

But this year, things may look a little different: The candidates will debate for the first time on June 27 on CNN, months before the usual fall contests, in events that will not be organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has been overseeing debates in every US. presidential elections since 1988.

It’s simply the latest evolution in the history of American presidential debates.

The first televised presidential debates, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, took place in television studios without a live audience. Debates did not take place again until after the 1976 elections, and from then on they took place in front of a live audience who were instructed not to make noise except for the beginning and end of the debate.

“In ’76 the president was Gerald Ford. He came to power because of Nixon’s resignation. So he was in a kind of weak position. He is the one who actually challenged Jimmy Carter to debates, and who started the tradition that has existed ever since of presidential debates,” Alan Schroeder, professor emeritus of journalism at Northeastern University, previously told CNN’s Zachary B. Wolf.

Schroeder said there are usually two or three presidential debates one vice-presidential debate per cycle.

The importance of the presidential debates is debatable: many attribute Kennedy’s narrow victory in 1960 to an appealing performance in the televised debate. Then-President Gerald Ford may have cost himself re-election when he asked a question in 1976 about the Soviet Union’s military strength in Eastern Europe. Ronald Reagan, previously a professional actor, used strong debate performances against Democrats Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale to secure two election victories. , and an ill-advised decision to check his watch during the 1992 debate became a memorable footnote in President George HW Bush’s defeat by Bill Clinton that year.

Republican Vice President Richard Nixon and Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy participate in a televised debate in 1960.

On the other hand, in an era of increasing partisan division, it is unclear how many decisions remain to be made.

Either way, the debates will likely give the candidates some of their best chances to reach millions of Americans: approx 73 million people watched the first debate between Trump and Biden in 2020, when it was broadcast on 16 channels. Many more have probably looked online or come across excerpts. A record 84 million people watched the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The Biden-Trump debates will take place historically early and set the tone for the final months of the 2024 campaign. On Wednesday morning, both campaigns announced that they had accepted CNN’s invitation to a debate on June 27 and later revealed that they had agreed with a debate on ABC on September 10. The debates will be organized by news organizations instead of the Commission on Presidential Debates, from which the Republican National Committee withdrew its participation in 2022, citing concerns about what it said were biased moderators and debates coming too late on the election calendar in an era of increasingly earlier voting.

Despite the RNC’s withdrawal, the committee last November announced dates for three presidential debates: a first debate scheduled for September 16 in Texas, a second on October 1 in Virginia and a third on October 9 in Utah.

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden attend the final presidential debate at Belmont University on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee.

In a letter Wednesday explaining the campaign’s decision not to participate in the committee’s 2024 debates, Biden campaign chairman Jen O’Malley Dillon said the campaign proposed a revised schedule because the original dates “were not in keeping pace with changes in the structure of our elections and the interests of voters,” pointing to the timeline of early voting, the way the committee has constructed debates as an “entertainment spectacle” and the committee being “incapable or unable is prepared” to enforce rules in the 2020 debates.

The CNN debate will be held without a studio audience, meeting a condition outlined by the Biden campaign. It is a sharp departure from previous events, which were often interrupted by spectator reactions.

In addition to the two debates agreed to on Wednesday, Trump’s team also called on the candidates to participate in two additional debates in July and August, twice the number requested by Biden. The Biden campaign sidestepped questions about that request on Wednesday.

Biden and Trump will likely be the only candidates on stage

Biden and Trump have been their parties’ presumptive nominees for months, despite primary elections still taking place in each state. It is likely, but not yet certain, that only the two men will be seen on stage and not independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who, according to CNN’s qualifications for Wednesday’s run, is not yet on enough state ballots to compete to meet the 270 votes. electoral threshold required to be elected president and has not maintained a polling average of at least 15% in major polls recently.

Kennedy, who has repeatedly tried to debate Biden and Trump, did not take Wednesday’s announcements well, accusing the two leading candidates of “conspiring” to keep him off stage.

In the committee era, Ross Perot was the only non-major party candidate to participate in the debates in 1992. Perot was not involved when he ran for re-election in 1996.

CNN’s Zachary B. Wolf, Betsy Klein, Michael Williams and Kristen Holmes contributed to this report.