The Past and Future of Presidential Debates

By Austin Ranney | Go to book overview

PREFACE

Austin Ranney

The televised joint appearances (like most people, we shall call them "debates" in this book1) of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960 and of Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford in 1976 played critical roles in the two campaigns. They were watched and heard by far more Americans than any other campaign event in history: some 107 million adults watched or listened to at least one debate in 1960,2 and in 1976 the number rose to 122 million.3 Both debate series had major impacts on the election's outcomes, and some analysts say they were decisive. Both series were widely hailed, here and abroad, as American democracy operating at its best. And both were widely criticized as travesties of reasoned discussion, disservices to the American people, and electoral disasters for some of the participants.

The 1960 and 1976 debates shared other traits as well. As Chapters 1 and 2 detail, setting them up involved a number of legal and constitutional complications stemming from Section 315(a) of the Federal Communications Act of 1934 -- the so-called equal time rule.

____________________
1
Not everyone agrees -- see, for example, Evron Kirkpatrick's comments in Chapter 1. The argument is made that in true debates, such as those between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in Illinois in 1858 and between Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen before the Oregon Republican presidential primary in 1948, only the candidates participate and each is given time to present his views, to question his opponent directly, and to refute the opposition's statements. Most people, however, appear to take the more latitudinarian view of Webster that a debate is any "regulated discussion of a proposition between two matched sides as a test of forensic ability" ( Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, 1966 edition, p. 582). So in this book as, sadly, in most employment of the language, usage triumphs over logic.
2
Elihu Katz and Jacob J. Feldman, "The Debates in the Light of Research: A Survey of Surveys", in Sidney Kraus, ed., The Great Debates ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962), pp. 187-192.
3
See Chapter 3, p. 82.

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The Past and Future of Presidential Debates
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Preface *
  • 1 - Presidential Candidate "Debates": What Can We Learn from 1960 1
  • Discussion 51
  • 2 - Historical Evolution of Section 315 56
  • Discussion 70
  • 3 - Presidential Debates: an Empirical Assessment 75
  • Discussion 102
  • 4 - The 1976 Presidential Debates: a Republican Perspective 107
  • Discussion 131
  • 5 - Did the Debates Help Jimmy Carter? 137
  • Discussion 147
  • 6 - The Case for Permanent Presidential Debates 155
  • Discussion 169
  • 7 - Debatable Thoughts on Presidential Debates 175
  • Discussion 187
  • 8 - Presidential Debates: an Overview 191
  • Discussion 206
  • Bibliography 215
  • Contributors 225
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