A short history of presidential debates
By Scott Brinton
Before 1960, there was little demand for — or interest in — presidential debates, and so there were no national debates, according to a history of the debates compiled by CNN and Time magazine. The first nationally televised debate, which pitted John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon, was watched by more than 66 million people and electrified the public. Kennedy’s stellar performance in the debate is widely credited with putting him over the top in the 1960 election, which he won by a razor-thin margin.
After 1960, presidential debates disappeared until 1976, primarily because the candidates did not call for them, according to CNN and Time. In the 1976 election, Jimmy Carter gained an upper hand when incumbent Gerald Ford made a major debate misstatement — “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” — at a time when the Soviet Union ruled Eastern Europe with an iron fist.
1976 was the first time that a presidential debate was held on a college campus — at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, according to the nonpartisan, nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates, which the Democratic and Republican parties began in 1987 to run the debates.
By the mid-1990s, presidential debates had become part and parcel of the political landscape, and colleges and universities became their regular venues.
Hofstra hosted its first presidential debate in 2008, between John McCain and Barack Obama. Hofstra is among a handful of universities to host a debate more than once. Others include Wake Forest University, the University of Massachusetts and Washington University in St. Louis, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates.