Whether it was the timing, the breakout from the press conference format or just the year of the voter, more people watched the televised presidential debates in 1992 than any other political event in American history. Even though only two of the debates were in prime time, audiences were up 20 percent from 1988. The last was seen by a Super Bowl-sized audience approaching 100 million people, despite the fact that it began at 7 p.m. in the East and 4 p.m. in the West--well before prime time.
There are many theories why the audiences were so big. As executive producer of the debates, mine is that four face-offs in eight days made them a TV political miniseries. It was the "Roots" phenomenon; you had to watch in order to hold up your end of the conversation the following day. But if you missed one, there was another coming up.
Helping to sustain interest was the element of novelty; each debate had a different format. For the first time, the rigid moderator/panelist approach was used in only the first debate and part of the last one. The single moderator, long the darling of the academic community, finally got a tryout. The audience seemed to like the debates, and they were more influential than ever. In a Times Mirror post-election survey, 70 percent of respondents said the debates helped them decide whom to vote for--up from 48 percent in 1988.
By being scheduled so late in the campaign (October 11-19), the debates came at a time when the country was ready for them. Except for political junkies, the presidential campaign is essentially background noise for millions of Americans until October, when they are getting close to having to make up their minds. It's the month when politics becomes important to everyone, not just to the journalists and professional politicos who have been the players up to that point.
Finally there was baseball--for the first time in history only one U.S. city had a team in the World Series. The Atlanta-Toronto series was a big yawn; ratings were the second lowest ever for a prime time broadcast.
Ironically, it was Vice President Dan Quayle who did more than anyone to encourage the Bush campaign to break out of the rigid format mold. Quayle, who was devastated in 1988 by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's line, "I knew Jack Kennedy, senator, and you're no Jack Kennedy," knew that his hopes for helping the ticket and building his own candidacy for the future were riding on his debate performance. It was he and his chief of staff, William Kristol, who persuaded reluctant Bush campaign officials to agree to the single moderator format as proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates and accepted by the Clinton campaign in June.
On September 28, trailing in the polls by 10 to 15 points and with no sign of life on his political life support system, President Bush proposed six debates--one on each of the Sunday evenings remaining before the election. Two days later, lawyers began negotiating a compromise of four debates in eight days, including a single-moderator, vice-presidential debate, a voice-of-the-people debate and a debate that would be half single moderator, half panel.
Clinton's lead in the polls made it difficult for the Republicans to resist the changes in the debate format, especially since Quayle was determined to confront Sen. Albert Gore directly. Mickey Kantor, Clinton's campaign manager and chief negotiator, insisted on what became the University of Richmond format--ordinary voters confronting the candidates without a press panel. The Republicans, whose candidate never liked debates anyway, agreed after Kantor, tossing his pencil in the air in exasperation, threatened to pull out. One reason the Republicans did finally agree, according to one insider, was because they thought that Richmond, a conservative city, could be relied on to produce uncommitted voters sufficiently in awe of the president to guarantee softball questions. …