Accessibility links

Breaking News

U.S.: Bush, Kerry Continue American Political Tradition With Pre-Election Debates

U.S. President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger for the presidency, Senator John Kerry, face each other today in the first of three pre-election debates. The first debate will focus on foreign affairs. Different polls show different levels of support for each candidate, with Bush considered to have the edge at the moment. But most observers say the race is still close. As a result, their performances in the debates may be critical to who wins the 2 November vote. RFE/RL takes a look at the history of televised presidential debates in the United States and their impact on voters.

Washington, 30 September 2004 -- On 26 September 1960, U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and then-Vice President Richard Nixon met in a televised presidential debate.

For the first time, Americans could watch the candidates of the two major parties argue directly with each over the issues of the day.

A crucial concern then was the Cold War, and how aggressive the United States should be in opposing communism.

Kennedy addressed the issue in his opening statement, saying: "The question now is, can freedom be maintained under the most severe attack it has ever known? I think it can be, and I think in the final analysis it depends upon what we do here. I think it's time America started moving again."

Nixon replied that he shared Kennedy's belief in the importance of America's role in international affairs. "The things that Senator Kennedy has said, many of us can agree with," Nixon said. "There is no question but that we cannot discuss our internal affairs in the United States without recognizing that they have a tremendous bearing on our international position."

While the debate was also broadcast on radio, it was a television event. And that evening, television showed the impact it can have on a nation's electorate -- an influence that had never before been felt, according to Bob Schieffer, a journalist with the CBS television network. Schieffer is moderating one of this year's three presidential debates:

"The people who listened to the debate [on the radio] between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960, a survey showed that they thought Richard Nixon won," Schieffer said. "The people who watched them on television concluded that Kennedy won, and won going away, because of his smooth, cool, and confident manner. [Former President] Ronald Reagan understood that. Ronald Reagan understood -- being a movie actor as he was -- that it's not always just what you say, but how you say it and how you look when you say it."

Many believe the debate gave Kennedy the edge he needed to narrowly defeat Nixon in the election.

Most analysts say other debates have been similarly influential.

In his 1976 debate with challenger Jimmy Carter, incumbent President Gerald Ford is seen as having hurt himself badly when he stated that Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, was not -- as he put it -- "well within the Soviet sphere of influence."

The 1980 debates helped Ronald Reagan in his campaign against Carter. At the time, Reagan was being dismissed by some as merely a retired Hollywood actor. But in the debates, he was articulate in accusing Carter of being unable to control inflation and unemployment.

Much has changed in the 44 years since the first televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon. For example, the 1960 sessions were somewhat free-form, allowing each candidate eight-minute opening statements and opportunities to comment on his opponent's answers, which were posed by a panel of journalists.

Today, the rules are tighter, with much shorter answers permitted. Each debate will be tightly controlled, from the heights of the speakers' podiums to the temperature of the air conditioning.

Alan Lichtman, a professor of American political history at American University in Washington, said he is disappointed that the debates have become so choreographed that the candidates can't even question one another directly on their policies or records. He said the current format doesn't properly challenge the candidates, and questioned how influential the debates really are.

"Debates are actually far less influential than people think they are. Voters are not usually moved in large numbers one way or the other way by a debate," Lichtman said. "If you look at the polling before and after debates, we don't see earthquakes in the polling data. However, if this election really is as close as some people think it will be, and it may not be, but if it's like 2000, where it comes down to a few votes in states here or there, obviously, the debates could sway a few swing voters."

Another history professor, Leo Ribuffo of George Washington University in Washington, agreed that the debates are too tightly scripted. But he said he believes the sessions still give voters an opportunity to hear the candidates interact on important issues.

"It's better information than you're likely to get in prepared speeches or 30-second TV clips," Ribuffo said. "It certainly serves national unity -- the ritual of the candidates shaking hands. And I'd also say that it does focus national attention on the campaign, which is likely to get lost in the start of the football season and the baseball playoffs and the World Series."

As was first proven in the Kennedy-Nixon debate, just as important as what the candidates actually say is how their performances are perceived. The broadcast and print media in the United States will be dominated tomorrow by commentary on the first Bush-Kerry debate. And it's often the consensus verdict of this analysis -- not necessarily the substance of the debate itself -- that leaves the biggest impression in voters' minds.

The first Bush-Kerry debate will be held in Florida at the University of Miami. The two men will meet again on 8 October in St. Louis, Missouri. Their third debate will be 13 October in Arizona.

Meanwhile, Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, will debate his counterpart, Senator John Edwards, on 5 October in Cleveland, Ohio.