While the effect of political debates on election outcome is debatable, they have been a permanent part of every presidential campaign since 1976. Prior to that, debates between candidates had occurred sporadically, changing through the years in format and forum.
One of the earliest records of political debates dates back to 1858, between Illinois Senate contenders Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln lost the Senate seat but gained recognition that earned him the presidency two years later. The advent of radio made political debates accessible to the masses, and the Republican primary debate between Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen in 1948 was the first carried over the airwaves. In 1960 Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy made history with the first nationally televised debate, which demonstrated the importance of image as well as message. General presidential debates then took a 16-year hiatus but returned with a much-anticipated encounter between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987 to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners. The organization has produced every presidential debate since 1988, coordinating related research and educational activities as well.
This year the University of Miami also becomes part of history in the making. It is the first academic institution in the state selected to host a presidential debate, and the 2004 presidential debates are the first ever held in South Florida.
More information on the history of political debates is available at:
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