The first ever televised presidential debate didn’t happen until 1960. Candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy squared off – just once – in front of the camera, an event that proved extremely beneficial to the smoother and more youthful Kennedy, who went on to win the election against his stodgier opponent. The next presidential debate wouldn’t happen for another 16 years, when President Gerald Ford – who made a notorious factual gaffe – fared poorly against his Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter.

Ever since, presidential debates have become a fixture of our electoral system. It’s now standard protocol for candidates to face off three times in the grueling weeks leading up to election day. The impressions they try to make, as they appear live before millions of viewers, can significantly influence the outcome of the election.

The first debate, which was on October 3 at the University of Denver, focused on domestic policy and followed a traditional debate format, in which moderator Jim Lehrer of the PBS NewsHour asked questions, and the candidates took 2-minutes to respond. Mitt Romney, who delivered a much stronger performance, was widely considered the winner of this match-up. Following the debate, poll numbers – which had previously favored Obama – shifted slightly to put the candidates in a near dead heat.

So a lot is riding on debate number two, which takes place Tuesday, Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. Moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley,  for CNN takes the format of a town hall meeting, in which undecided voters in the audience have an opportunity to directly ask the candidates questions on both foreign and domestic issues. Candidates each will have two minutes to respond, and an additional minute for the moderator to facilitate a discussion.

The third and final face-off in the trilogy happens the following week, on Oct. 22 at Lynn University, Boca Raton, FL. It’s hosted by Bob Schieffer of CBS. The format will be identical to the first debate, with a focus on foreign policy.

For more on the debate system and full-length videos and transcripts of past debates, visit Commission on Presidential Debates.


Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email:; Twitter: @KQEDlowdown

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