With the most anticipated presidential debate in recent history just hours away, it is important to take a look back at some historical firsts in America’s presidential debates.
While television stations have been around since 1928, presidential debates have been televised only since 1960. Here are 5 quick historical firsts:
1. The first presidential debate between major parties to be televised was in 1960 between candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. That initial debate is largely credited with delivering a fatal blow to Nixon, and putting JFK in the White House. Nixon famously refused makeup for his appearance, causing him to look ill — as he was said to be.
As much as tonight’s debate has been hyped, that one between Kennedy and Nixon garnered 66.4 million viewers at a time when the U.S. population was only about 180 million people and the proportion of households with TVs was much lower than today. As a point of reference, the U.S. population now is about 325 million.
Nixon refused to debate his opponents in the 1968 and 1972 campaigns, probably because of the effect the debate had on his campaign against Kennedy. That represents the only break in the chain of televised presidential debates between 1960 and today.
2. The 1976 presidential campaign ended a twelve year hiatus for presidential debates. It is also the first year for vice presidential debates. Those debates have been held each election since 1984 — there was none in the year Ronald Reagan was elected for his first term against one term president Jimmy Carter.
While vice presidential debates do not garner anywhere near the interest of presidential debates, and have had virtually no memorable quotes, the 1988 campaign had one of the most famous presidential (or vice presidential quotes of all time) in the debate between Lloyd Benson and Dan Quayle — President George H.W. Bush’s running mate. After Quayle suggested that he was no less experienced that John F. Kennedy, Bentsen famously responded with the famous line:
“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mind. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
3. In 1992, the presidential debates, for the first time, included a third party candidate. That was the year that billionaire Ross Perot ran as an Independent. Perot debated against incumbent President George H.W. Bush and then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Of course, Clinton won the presidency and was re-elected in 1996 for his second term.
4. The most watched presidential debate in terms of sheer viewers — not as a proportion of the population — was the one between Ronald Reagan and incumbent President Jimmy Carter. That debate drew some 80.2 million viewers. Of course, tonight’s debate is set to break that record and by a long way, though it may still not break the Kennedy-Nixon debate’s record in terms of proportion of the population.
5. Hofstra University, the site of the debate tonight between Clinton and Trump, is the only school to host debates in three consecutive presidential elections.