Americans Have Always Loved to Hate Presidential Debates

Audiences are ambivalent — but they still tune in

presidential debate
A family tunes in to the 1976 debate Bettmann/CORBIS

Every four years, the cycle starts again. Viewers at home tune into panels of presidential hopefuls to hear words that are sometimes blustery, sometimes smart. Some viewers hate the spectacle of politicians battling one another on screen, and others love to hate it. Apparently, that attitude started with the first modern presidential debates in 1960 and hasn’t let up since, writes Josh Zeitz for Politico.

Zeitz notes that even the candidates complain about televised debates. Does some of the following sound familiar?

“We haven’t really joined a debate,” observed former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who vied for the Democratic nomination in 1988. “You know, you listen to candidates and you think, they’re all just talking.” The same year, Jesse Jackson worried that “we’re trapped in these 90-second sound bites trying to say things that make a difference.” “Some way must be found to get past the slogans,” Gary Hart implored.

Debates pre-date television. Zeitz reports that James Madison took on James Monroe in 1788 in the race for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. “The trip is in itself very disagreeable,” Madison told close friend Thomas Jefferson, "both on account of its electioneering appearance and the sacrifice of the winter.”

Thousands attended the first presidential debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, writes Zeitz, giving rise to scenes of "commotion and confusion" with their banner waving and huzzah-ing. Then, there was a decades-long lull in debates. They came back into vogue with the infamous debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon — Nixon was so pale and ill, he flopped in comparison to Kennedy.

Since presidential primary debates became regular occurrences in 1976, political scientist have engaged in their own debate about the efficacy of the format. Common wisdom is that debates usually don’t shift polls — changes in opinion are often temporary. 

Did love or hate drive a record number of viewers to tune into last night's Republican primary debate? There's no way to know — but the numbers themselves demonstrate Americans' enthusiastic ambivalence about presidential debates.

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