History of How Presidential Debates Have Changed

It’s not always easy to find the most accurate information and make a knowledgeable decision on Election Day, but debates are a great place to start. They help us learn who the candidates are and offer some transparency around the policies and issues that they’re passionate about. Surprisingly though, presidential debates are a relatively new trend, and the format of them has frequently changed over the past century. So we decided to take a look at the events and technologies that have helped shape the debates that we see today, and will continue seeing over the coming months.


Though it wasn’t a presidential debate, historians say this was one of the first great political debates in America. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were vying for a seat in the Senate and had very different ideas on the issue of slavery. They held several debates in towns around Illinois on the issue. If you’ve found this year’s debates never-ending, you wouldn’t want to watch these debates either; they lasted 3 hours, with each candidate speaking for hours at a time. But rather than the calm, quiet audiences we see viewing the debates today, Lincoln and Douglas’s viewers raucously cheered and shouted questions at the speakers.


Two opponents for the Republican presidential nomination, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey and former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen, not only brought back the debate trend almost a hundred years later, they helped set the standard for what we see today. This early mediated debate reached a huge audience of over 80 million radio listeners who were eagerly awaiting the candidates’ stance on outlawing the Communist party. It was also the only presidential debate in history that focused on one single issue.


This famous debate between Nixon and Kennedy is said to have swayed the outcome of the election. It was the first televised debate and it helped establish television’s influential role in political events. Nixon was ill leading up to the debate and not familiar with presenting himself on camera. He sweated through the entire debate and didn’t know where to focus his gaze when answering questions. Kennedy, on the other hand, looked much more comfortable, carried himself well, and looked directly at the camera while talking. Those who tuned in by radio agreed that Nixon won the debate, but television viewers overwhelmingly thought that Kennedy was the winner. After that debate, no incumbent president agreed to a debate for another 16 years. While radio highlighted the content of the message, television made candidates far more aware of their presentation.


Since 1927, an equal-time rule established that broadcasters must provide an equivalent opportunity to any opposing political candidates. With invitations being extended to all front-runners and lesser known candidates, this made for a complicated debate scene. As you can imagine, it could often be a very crowded stage. New guidelines were applied to this rule which allowed debates to include only major party candidates, making them a more frequent event.


Today, debates have fully become an election tradition. The offer to take part in a presidential debate is never turned down. On average, more than 65 million people tune in to watch. It’s now become the best way for candidates to distinguish themselves and share their policies and positions with voters.


This election year was the first to be majorly impacted by social media. It changed how people discussed debate in real time, making it so that no one ever tuned in alone. With the arrival of live updates on social media networks, audiences could read comments, share opinions, and discuss the debate as it happened.

Even without screaming crowds, this upcoming debate season promises to be an interesting one. With lots of topics to cover, there’s still a lot to learn about candidates before November.

Looking to bring politics to life for your students? Here’s a guide to helping your students experience the presidential inauguration. 

Zach Michonski

Hundreds of destinations.
Endless possibilities.

Contact us Browse tours