Televised presidential debates in the United States have become an important tradition to partake in for the main candidates of the two largest political parties in the country. The first presidential debate took place in 1960, after which they did not take place again until in 1976, after the Commission on Presidential Debates was founded. The topics of discussion in the debate would be some of the contemporary and controversial issues. The presidential debates have proved to be a crucial determinant of the outcome of the elections.
Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan, October 28th, 1980
Three days before Halloween of 1980, more than one-third of American citizens watched from home as Reagan and Carter took to the debate stage. The debate went down in history as the most-watched presidential debate in America, with 80,600,000 television viewers. The debate was held one week before the elections and would be the only one held. Before the debate, both parties edged slightly than the other in different polls. The debate played a significant role in popularizing Ronald Reagan and his ideas. Ronald Reagan questioned the incumbent Jimmy Carter’s achievements in his four-year term, in particular on the rising inflation and unemployment levels. Reagan concluded his argument with what would become a famous campaign slogan for him when he asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?." The result of the election was a landslide victory for Ronald Reagan, the highest number of votes to be won by a non-sitting Presidential hopeful.
George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, October 15th, 1992
This presidential debate was watched by 69,900,000 American viewers. The debate was between the incumbent President George H.W. Bush, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, and an independent businessman from Texas, Ross Perot. The debate was one of the first debates to host three presidential candidates. Voters could direct questions and concerns to the candidates. The overriding theme was economy along with rising American debt and character. The debate served as an opportunity for George Bush to boost his ratings, but the debate only increased Clinton’s poll ratings. The election ended in victory for the Democratic nominee Bill Clinton after three consecutive Republican victories. The election was the second one after the Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan, where the incumbent president lost his seat.
Gerald Ford vs. Jimmy Carter, September 23rd, 1976
This presidential debate attracted a total of 69,700,000 television viewers. The debate was between incumbent Republican President, Gerald Ford and the relatively obscure Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter. The former Vice President, Gerald Ford, had ascended to office after the resignation of Richard Nixon, in light of bribery scandals. Gerald Ford was faced with challenges of a weak economy and his popularity had waned after he pardoned former President Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter adopted a moderate position, distanced himself from Washington’s political scandals, and emphasized the lack of trust Americans had in their leaders. Themes in the debate were tax and budget, unemployment, the controversial pardon of former President Nixon, and proposed policies. The result of the subsequent election was a victory for Jimmy Carter.
George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis, October 13th, 1988
This presidential debate was watched by 67,300,000 television viewers. The debate was between Republican Vice President George Bush and Democratic Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. George Bush mainly focused on Michael’s stance against the death penalty to reduce Michael’s popularity. George Bush also basked under Ronald Reagan’s popularity and a healthy economy. Major themes of the debate were capital punishment, taxes, defense budget, and ethics. Michael Dukakis was widely seen as unable to dilute attacks from George Bush during the debate, and this only served to raise the poll ratings of George Bush. The subsequent election resulted in a decisive victory for George Bush.
Other Famous Debates
Other famous presidential debates viewed by the highest numbers of Americans in the history of the country include Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale on October 21st, 1984 (67,300,000), Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney on October 3rd, 2012 (67,200,000), and the three-part debate between George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot on October 19th, 1992 (66,900,000).
What Was the Most-Watched Presidential Debate in History?
The 2016 debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump attracted more viewers than any other presidential debate in history, at 84 million.
U.S. Presidential Debates With The Most Television Viewers In History
|Rank||Most Viewed U.S. Presidential Debates||Television Viewers|
|1||Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan, October 28th, 1980||80,600,000|
|2||George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, October 15th, 1992||69,900,000|
|3||Gerald Ford vs. Jimmy Carter, September 23rd, 1976||69,700,000|
|4||George H. W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis, October 13th, 1988||67,300,000|
|5||Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale, October 21st, 1984||67,300,000|
|6||Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney, October 3rd, 2012||67,200,000|
|7||George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, October 19th, 1992||66,900,000|
|8||George H. W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis, September 25th, 1988||65,100,000|
|9||Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale, October 7th, 1984||65,100,000|
|10||Gerald Ford vs. Jimmy Carter, October 6th, 1976||63,900,000|
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
Your MLA Citation
Your APA Citation
Your Chicago Citation
Your Harvard CitationRemember to italicize the title of this article in your Harvard citation.