THE CRITICAL DEBATES
IN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
From talk radio, to television, to podcasts and to Twitter, we want students to understand not just the debates but the critiques, the spins and the patterns. We want to support teachers in developing critical thinking and news literacy in students — two things that will serve them throughout their lives and help them to be part of our democracy. This curriculum is designed to foster media literacy, by highlighting the most significant moments in televised presidential debates.
1980 AND 1984: RONALD REAGAN
By Andrea Stone
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter refused to take part in a three-way debate with Republican Ronald Reagan, former governor of California, and independent candidate John Anderson, congressman from Illinois. Anderson and Reagan debated alone and a second presidential debate and the vice presidential debate were canceled. With only a week before voters went to the polls, Carter agreed to a single head-to-head matchup against Reagan.
The former Hollywood actor and pitchman was already known as “the great communicator.” Reagan’s debate performance showed why. His camera-ready skills were perfect for television, which preferred short and pithy “sound bites” to dry policy discussions.
Carter and Reagan were close in the polls when 80.6 million television viewers tuned in to what was the most-watched presidential debate until 2016. The meeting would be memorable for two zingers by Reagan that quickly entered the political lexicon.
After a long monologue by Carter attacking his opponent’s health-care record, Reagan looked over, tipped his head and with a slight laugh said, “There you go again.”
Later, in his final statement, Reagan asked the key question that voters would soon answer with their ballots: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Reagan won in a landslide.
In 1984, President Reagan faced off against former Vice President Walter Mondale in two debates. Things didn't go well for the incumbent during the first in Louisville, Ky. Reagan seemed tired and confused, often giving meandering answers. His poor performance raised questions about his age. At 73, he was the oldest president in history.
Reagan rebounded in the second faceoff in Kansas City, Mo., with one of the best lines of any presidential debate. Asked by the moderator whether his age would affect his ability to function in a crisis, Reagan replied, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.”
Even Mondale, 56, laughed at the line, neutralizing the age issue. Reagan went on to win 49 of the 50 states, racking up the biggest electoral vote win in American history.
The 1984 debates also marked the debut of the “spin room” where surrogates -- in this case Reagan’s -- sought to talk up, or “spin” -- their candidate’s performance. They are now a debate staple, as are media articles picking debate “winners and losers.”
After 1984, said historian Douglas Brinkley, “Debates became very much like sports.”
 Original interview with Douglas Brinkley