nixon.kennedy.file.giA Look at Presidential Debates in the United States

Presidential debates in the United States were once an unofficial part of campaign season, with candidates agreeing to a debate in an open setting typically along the campaign trail. The debate process began in the 19th century, punctuated by names like Abraham Lincoln, but they gained real steam during the second half of the 20th century. With the advent of television, debates could be seen by millions of Americans all at the same time. Beginning with the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, which all but secured the presidency for John F. Kennedy, debates became an officially sanctioned part of campaign season. Today, they’re easily taken for granted as part of every presidential campaign every four years.

The Evolution: Debates Get an Oversight Group in 1987

Though presidential debates had been going on for at least a century before Kennedy and Nixon agreed to televise their own exchange in 1960, presidential debates had never been subject to any sort of federal oversight or regulatory body. That all changed in 1987, when the federal government established the Commission on Presidential Debates. The goal of the commission was to ensure that the debate process was fair to both political parties and both candidates, and that television deals could be struck for broadcast coverage on all major networks.

Today, the Commission on Presidential Debates is responsible for selecting moderators, choosing venues, and setting the terms of each debates that are agreed upon between candidates. The body is also responsible for enforcing federal regulations for debate coverage, fairness, and other metrics.

In addition to broadcast network coverage, the CPD in recent years has been more heavily involved in emerging technologies and their impact on the debate process. The organization is currently evaluating the use of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as video sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo, as potential debate coverage mechanisms and moderation tools.

No matter the course of these new technologies, though, one thing is for sure: The presidential debate has become, over the last century, one of the most important and respected methods of listening to and choosing a presidential candidate.