Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
U.S. presidential election debates
Televised presidential debates have been a feature of every U.S. presidential election since 1976. The first televised debates were in 1960, when four debates were held between Vice President Richard Nixon and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. After a three-election gap, televised debates resumed in 1976:
- In 1976 — three debates between President Gerald Ford and former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter
- In 1980 — one debate between President Jimmy Carter and former California Governor Ronald Reagan, one between Governor Reagan and Illinois Congressman John Anderson
- In 1984 — two debates between President Ronald Reagan and former Vice President Walter Mondale
- In 1988 — two debates between Vice President George H. W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis
- In 1992 — three debates including President George H. W. Bush, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, and independent candidate Ross Perot
- In 1996 — two debates between President Bill Clinton and former Kansas Senator Bob Dole
- In 2000 — three debates between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush
- In 2004 — three debates between President George W. Bush and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry
Presidential debates are held late in the election cycle, after the political parties have nominated their candidates. The candidates meet in a large hall, often at a university, before an audience of citizens. The formats of the debates have varied, with questions sometimes posed from one or more journalist moderators and in other cases members of the audience. Between 1988 and 2000, the formats have been governed in detail by secret MOUs between the two major candidates; an MOU for 2004 was also negotiated, but unlike the earlier agreements it was jointly released by the two candidates.
Debates are televised and broadcast live on the radio. The first debate for the 1960 election drew over 66 million viewers out of a population of 179 million, making it one of the most-watched broadcasts in U.S. television history. The 1980 debates drew 80 million viewers out of a 226 million. By 2000, about 46 million viewers out of a population of 280 million watched the first debate, with ten million fewer watching the subsequent debates that year. In 2004, 62.5 million people watched the first debate, while 43.6 million watched the vice-presidential debate. 
Vice Presidential debates
Level of the debates
The Princeton Review, known for its test preparation services, obtained transcripts of the presidential campaign debates of 2000 and again in 2004, and analyzed the candidates' vocabulary against national standards, using a standard vocabulary test that indicates the minimum educational level needed for comprehension. The Princeton Review has compared the vocabulary levels to those used in earlier campaign debates.
- In 1858, Abraham Lincoln spoke at the equivalent of a modern eleventh-grade level (11.2); Stephen A. Douglas spoke at a higher level (12.0).
- In 1992, Bill Clinton spoke at a seventh grade level (7.6); George Bush in the sixth grade (6.8), and Ross Perot at a sixth-grade level (6.3)
- In 2000, George W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7); Al Gore spoke at a high seventh-grade level (7.9).
- In 2004, George W. Bush (analysis to follow) and John Kerry (analysis to follow)
The grade-levels given above are the levels required for comprehension. Most people write below their level of reading comprehension, and speak at a level below that at which they generally are capable of writing. Those who speak above the level of their audience's comprehension level would have difficulty getting their message across. Comprehension determinations involves vocabulary levels as well as average number of syllables per word and per sentence.
Control of the presidential debates has been a ground of struggle for at least twenty years. The role was filled by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters (LWV) civic organization in 1976, 1980 and 1984. In 1987, the LWV withdrew from debate sponsorship, in protest of the major party candidates attempting to dictate nearly every aspect of how the debates were conducted. On October 2nd, 1988, the LWV's 14 trustees voted unanimously to pull out of the debates, and on October 3rd, they issued a dramatic press release:
- The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates ... because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.
The two major political parties had their own loyalists ready to take over the debates and did so in 1988 under the name of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). The two parties presented the 1988 debates and have done so every election cycle since. The has been headed since its inception by former chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties.
In 2004, the Citizens' Debate Commission (CDC) was formed to challenge control by the Democratic and Republican parties and attempt to return the debates to control by an independent, nonpartisan, rather than bipartisan, body. Chief concerns include the CPD's exclusion of third party and independent candidates. This effort was unsuccessful in its first attempt, as the CPD again controlled the 2004 debates.
- Commission on Presidential Debates
- The Citizens' Debate Commission's proposal
- PBS debate coverage from NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and Now with Bill Moyers
- Open Debates
- The Appleseed Citizens' Task Force on Fair Debates
- A selective analysis of content of 2000 presidential debates
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