5 Things You Didn't Know About U.S. Presidential Debates

On September 26, 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in our country's first televised presidential debate. Take a look at the these surprising 5 facts you probably didn’t know about the history of presidential debates.


The Idea of Holding Presidential Debates Is Fairly Recent The first nationally televised presidential debate was held between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon on September 26, 1960, something that had never happened before. Earlier candidates considered it improper to campaign for office and did not hold debates with their opponents. Despite the enormous audiences for the Kennedy-Nixon encounters, 16 years would go by before the next series of presidential debates. 

The First Presidential Debates Required an Act of Congress. In 1934, the Communications Act was passed, which required that broadcasters offer those running for public office equal air time. However, it was temporarily suspended by Congress to allow the Kennedy/Nixon debates. The law was revised by the Federal Communications Commission in 1975 to allow presidential debates without a special act by Congress.


The Third Debate Between Nixon and Kennedy Was Held 3,000 Miles Apart At the third debate between Kennedy and Nixon, the candidates didn’t share the same stage, let alone the same time zone. Both men appeared behind podiums in similar-looking television studios, Kennedy in New York City and Nixon in Hollywood, California. The moderator and three panelists sat in a third television studio. The good news for the candidates: no awkward handshakes.

Audio Failure Left Two Presidential Debaters Just Standing Around The September 23, 1976, debate between incumbent President Gerald Ford and Governor Jimmy Carter left both candidates stood silently for nearly half an hour without talking. With just nine minutes remaining in the first debate between President Gerald Ford and Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter, the audio failed. For 27 minutes, as the nation watched, the two candidates appeared frozen in place as they stood stiffly in silence. “I suspect both of us would have liked to sit down and relax while the technicians were fixing the system,” Ford recounted “but I think both of us were hesitant to make any gesture that might look like we weren’t physically or mentally able to handle a problem like this.”

A President Was Once A Debate No-Show President Carter believed three was a crowd and refused to participate in the debate that included both Republican nominee Ronald Reagan and independent candidate John Anderson, so the incumbent was missing when his two opponents took to the stage on September 21, 1980. The vice presidential debate and the second scheduled presidential debate were cancelled. Finally, just a week before Election Day, Carter had a one-on-one debate with his Republican rival in which Reagan uttered two phrases that quickly entered the political lexicon: “There you go again” and “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Reagan subsequently won the election by a landslide.