The first debate of the 1960 election took place seven weeks before election day. According to the US National Archives, an audience of about 70 million viewers tuned in. The candidates, Republican Vice President Richard Nixon and Democrat Senator John F Kennedy, took to the stage in an empty Chicago TV studio. The UK Guardian newspaper reported that the first debate centred around domestic issues, such as the American economy, medical care for the elderly and farm surpluses.

In Televised Presidential Debates and Public Policy, Sidney Kraus discusses the reaction to the debates. Dr Kraus wrote that, to observers, Nixon appeared ill and pale against the light backdrop. Kennedy, on the other hand, looked tanned from being on the campaign trail and was relaxed in front of the cameras. The UK Guardian commented that Nixon was wearing a “coat of pancake make-up”, in reference to the product he had applied to cover his five o’clock shadow.

Kraus notes that the press coverage after the debate concluded that those listening through the radio declared Nixon the winner, whilst those watching on the television thought Kennedy had won. The survey used to inform this coverage has since come under scrutiny. The Oxford University Press blog argued that Americans who listened to the debate on the radio were already likely to be Republican voters. Radio listeners were more likely to be from rural areas and Protestant. As a Catholic Democrat, Kenney was unlikely to sway them during the debate.

Nixon appeared to improve his image over the next two debates, but he ultimately went on to lose the race. The 1960 election seemed to usher in a new era for presidential races, but another televised debate did not take place until 1976. In Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future, Newton Minow argues that an “equal time law”, dating back to 1927, prevented broadcasters from showing debates between only the two main candidates as any number of smaller third-party candidates had the right to be included too. The 1960 debates were given a one-time exemption from this regulation. After legal battles, in 1976 it was decided that debates between the Republican and Democratic candidate could go ahead. But the debate had to be sponsored by a different body to the broadcaster, and it had to be shown live and in its entirety.

Between 1976 and 1987, debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters. In 1987, the Commission on Presidential Debates was established. The Commission took over sponsorship of the presidential debates and it helped to ensure that debates between the two main candidates became a staple of the election cycle. The candidates’ influence on the event gradually decreased. Since 2004, Minow notes that the Commission has had the final say over dates, formats, venue and moderators for each round of debates.

According to Ric Bailey from the Reuters Institute, the UK’s leaders have historically been opposed to televised debates in this style. Bailey states that previous leaders have called debates too American and presidential, and feared it would lead to the “erosion” of parliamentary democracy. The UK did not hold a televised leaders’ debate until 2010, 50 years after Nixon and Kennedy first battled.

The first television debates for the presidential election 2020 took place on 29 September, with others scheduled for 15 October and 22 October 2020. A vice-presidential debate is also due to take place on 7 October 2020.

Photos by History in HD and Library of Congress on Unsplash and Annalise Batista on Pixabay.