A return to the roots of presidential debates

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CNN’s presidential debate will feel like something new for most Americans, but it is actually a return to the roots of presidential debates.

Rather than a forum sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which had organized all general election presidential debates since 1988, the meeting Thursday between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will be hosted by CNN but simulcast on some other networks.

CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will moderate the meeting at CNN’s Atlanta studio and, unlike commission debates, there will be no live audience.

That TV studio format is not unlike the first televised presidential debates in 1960 between then-Sen. John F. Kennedy and then-Vice President Richard Nixon. There was a series of four televised debates in September and October of 1960, all of which occurred in TV studios, although one featured Nixon in a Los Angeles studio and Kennedy in New York, according to a history maintained by the commission.

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Those first debates were the brain child of network TV executives, according to Alan Schroeder, professor emeritus of journalism at Northeastern University and author of “Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.”

Kennedy is generally viewed as the winner of the 1960 debates, in part because of his comfort on camera. Nixon, meanwhile, did not wear makeup, did not practice the debate format and did not look like himself after a stay in the hospital due to a knee injury, Schroeder told me in a phone conversation.

Nixon learned his lesson, and there were no debates for his subsequent White House runs in 1968 and 1972. The next presidential debates did not take place until 1976, when Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, was in a similar position to Biden today. According to Schroeder, “he was looking for something dramatic to break the logjam” of poor polling for the Republican after taking over the presidency following Nixon’s Watergate-related resignation.

During his speech to the Republican National Convention that year, Ford issued a challenge to Jimmy Carter to debate. But the gamble backfired when Ford flubbed an answer related to the Soviet Union dominating Eastern Europe.

Carter was able to appear qualified and capable in front of a massive audience. That’s a very different dynamic from today, when Americans have already experienced both a Biden and a Trump presidency.

Four years later, Carter was less excited to debate. He skipped a forum featuring the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan, and an independent candidate, John Anderson, and took part in only one debate with Reagan.

Ultimately, the commission was formed to create a nonpartisan framework for presidential debates – something that has been exported to other countries. Schroeder said that while he preferred the old system of debates organized by the commission, it would make sense for campaigns to want to have more control over the process.

The TV studio format will allow Biden to sidestep “the distraction of boisterous Trump supporters interrupting, carrying on with loud applause or laughing, all those things that that happen when you have a live audience, and particularly a very politicized live audience,” Schroeder said.

Another model for debates, from the pre-Civil War era, relied on massive live audiences and featured Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. But the so-called Lincoln-Douglas debates did not take place during the 1860 presidential election, when the two were both candidates and when Lincoln won the White House. Instead, the debates occurred in 1858, and focused on the issue of slavery when the two men were running for Senate in Illinois. Douglas kept the Illinois Senate seat, but the debates gave Lincoln a national profile and helped him on the way to the White House.

Don’t expect a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate on TV. While more than 10,000 people attended most of the debates, held in locations across Illinois, they would seem extremely long-winded for someone with a 21st century attention span. The first speaker would get a 60-minute opening statement. The second got a 90-minute response. And the first speaker got a final 30-minute rebuttal.

CNN’s entire debate will last 90 minutes and include two commercial breaks. It will not feature opening statements, although each candidate will get a closing statement. After a coin toss, Biden is set to give the first closing statement and Trump will go last. Read more about the debate setup.

The debate will be watched live by millions on CNN and other TV networks, but unlike the Kennedy-Nixon debates, it will continue to be digested by potential voters in video clips on social media after it airs.

For the large portion of Americans who already know how they’ll vote, it’s unlikely a debate performance will change their minds, but Schroeder argued there are people who haven’t expressed a preference.

“They’re still up for grabs,” he said. “This debate and the one (hosted by ABC News) in September are likely to be events that would attract the people who don’t normally pay a lot of attention to politics.”

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