TIMELINE OF DEBATES IN BROADCAST MEDIA

1924

First presidential conventions heard on radio. Political parties broadcast their conventions on radio[1], to mixed results. Listeners heard Democrats laboriously take 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis. Republicans used radio more effectively, broadcasting from a dedicated studio in New York to tout Calvin Coolidge for president. A GOP memo[2] about lessons learned said, "broadcasting requires a new type of sentence. Its language is not that of the platform orator... Speeches must be short. Ten minutes is a limit and five minutes is better."

 

[1] https://psmag.com/news/airwaves-1924-the-first-presidential-campaign-over-radio-47615

[2] https://repository.upenn.edu/asc_papers/23/

1932

Pioneering electronic politicking. Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt was already a broadcasting pro thanks to monthly radio chats to his fellow New Yorkers when he employed the new technology to make him a national figure during the 1932 presidential race.[1] A natural on radio, FDR would go on as president to famously host radio “fireside chats” to communicate with the American people.

 

[1] http://www.roosevelthouse.hunter.cuny.edu/seehowtheyran/portfolios/1932-fdrs-first-presidential-campaign/

1952

First televised presidential political conventions. With the public looking on at home, conventions become less places where political decisions are made and more venues where candidates play to the cameras.[1]

 

[1] https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/tv-and-culture/5-ways-tv-has-influenced-presidential-elections5.htm

1952

First presidential campaign TV commercials. Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower hires Madison Avenue executive Rosser Reeves to make campaign ads. The spots use jingles and slogans -- “I like Ike” -- and feature the candidate answering scripted questions from ordinary citizens. Democrat Adlai Stevenson dismisses TV ads, saying, "I think the American people will be shocked by such contempt for their intelligence; this isn't Ivory soap versus Palmolive.” Eisenhower, who will hire Hollywood star Robert Montgomery as a TV coach, wins in November.

1960

Checkers speech. Republican Richard Nixon uses television to save his political career to defuse a campaign financing controversy that had Dwight Eisenhower considering dropping him from the ticket. Nixon instantly changes public opinion when he insists he would keep the gift of “a little cocker spaniel dog” that his daughter Tricia had named Checkers. 

1960

First televised presidential debate. Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon meet before studio cameras in a meeting that underscored the importance of image over substance. TV viewers thought the tanned, rested Kennedy won the debate over a pale and tired Nixon even as radio listeners thought Nixon prevailed. For the Democrat, it is the culmination of an effort “to craft a celebrity persona to appeal to voters as ‘Jack Kennedy fans’ to win” the presidency, says Kathryn Cramer Brownell, a historian at Purdue University and author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life.[1]

1964

“Daisy” ad. President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign marks a turning point in political advertising history by airing the so-called “Daisy” ad[1] showing a little girl counting petals taken over by a launch pad countdown and a nuclear blast. Johnson is heard saying, "These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die." The campaign airs the controversial spot -- which never mentions Johnson’s opponent, Republican Barry Goldwater, by name -- only once, on September 7. Yet the public conversation, and the fear it inspired about Goldwater’s temperament, is widely credited with Johnson’s landslide victory in the fall.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cwqHB6QeUw

1968

Bowing out on television. During a televised speech on the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War on March 31, President Lyndon Johnson shocks the nation by announcing he will not run for a second full term:[1] “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president." The announcement is called a “Pearl Harbor in politics.”[2]

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxWGg3AARnI

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/03/31/a-pearl-harbor-in-politics-lbjs-stunning-decision-not-to-seek-reelection/

1968

Softening an image. Republican Richard Nixon, widely viewed as humorless, appears on the TV comedy program Laugh-In on September 16. Most of his campaign aides -- with the exception of future Fox News chief Roger Ailes -- advise against it. But when Nixon utters the show’s famous catch phrase, “Sock it to me!”[1] he turns his campaign around by appearing more likeable and cool. His Democratic rival, Hubert Humphrey, refuses the show’s invitation to appear, saying it would be undignified.[2] He lost to Nixon in November.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_8oH8OQG0c

[2] https://www.history.com/news/richard-nixon-laugh-in-cameo-1968

1972

Cameras catch … something. Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie is the Democratic primary front runner for president when the conservative Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader runs a couple of critical articles, including one accusing his wife of being a drunk. Muskie holds a press conference[1] in front of the newspaper’s office during a snowstorm and gets emotional. The candidate appears to shed “tears,” which the campaign insists are melted snowflakes. Whatever they are, the pictures questioned Muskie’s calm and strength to lead the nation and his campaign never recovers.

[1] https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2008/01/17/72-front-runners-tears-hurt

1975

Comedy meets politics. On Nov. 8, comedian Chevy Chase debuts his impersonation of a bumbling President Gerald Ford on the new hit television show, Saturday Night Live. It is the beginning of SNL’s outsized influence on presidential politics until this day.

1975

“The Great Communicator.” Former California Governor Ronald Reagan begins four years of daily radio commentaries that will lay the groundwork for his successful presidential bid in 1980. The one-time Hollywood star employs his acting talents to preview the policy themes he will use in his campaign to a weekly audience of up to 30 million listeners, gradually transforming himself into a national political figure.[1]

 

[1] https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/ReaganOnRadio.pdf

1976

A new kind of campaign. In the wake of the Watergate scandal and party rule changes Jimmy Carter, the Democratic former governor of Georgia and a virtual unknown on the national political stage, proves the power of door-to-door campaigning and TV advertising[1] by winning the Iowa caucus on January 24. The caucus, previously ignored by most candidates, spells the end of party boss dominance in anointing nominees and transforms the early contest into a must for presidential hopefuls.[2] Though it will take until the cable TV era to complete the transition, the new attention on caucuses and primaries lengthens the presidential selection process. “Politics never stops and the endless campaigns are the result of a media that is endlessly covering campaigns,” says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer.[3]

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIjUU4cHbzk

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/jimmy-carter-iowa-caucuses/426729/

[3] Original interview with Julian Zelizer

1976

Changing the meaning of “presidential.” On April 17, 1976, the sitting president, Gerald Ford, sends his press secretary Ron Nessen to host Saturday Night Live in a bid to lift his sagging re-election campaign. Ford himself exclaims “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” in a pre-recorded clip filmed in the Oval Office. 

1976

First presidential debates since 1960. President Gerald Ford debates Democrat Jimmy Carter in order to convince voters to elect him in his own right after Richard Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal. Remembered for Ford’s gaffe, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.”[1]

 

[1] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/lists/debatemoments/geraldford.html

1980

“There you go again.” Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, the former Hollywood actor and governor of California, zings President Jimmy Carter in a memorable one-liner that would help him win the White House in a landslide.

1984

Political ads with production values. President Ronald Reagan runs two of the most memorable and effective political ads in campaign history, “Morning in America,”[1] and “Bear in the Woods.”[2] “They were like mini-movies as polished as you’d see in Hollywood,” says Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer.[3]

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EU-IBF8nwSY

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpwdcmjBgNA

[3] Original interview with Julian Zelizer

1984

Using humor as a campaign tool. After a poor debate performance raises questions about Ronald Reagan, at 73 the oldest president in history, the incumbent neutralizes the issue when he was asked in a second debate how his age would affect his functioning in a crisis. Reagan replies, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent' youth and inexperience.”[1] The quip even gets a laugh from his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, who went on to lose in November.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJhCjMfRndk

1987

Sex scandal sinks candidacy. Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, is forced to drop out in May after journalists uncover an extramarital affair.[1] Until then, the sex lives of 20th century candidates and presidents had been mostly ignored by the media[2]

 

 

[1] https://www.history.com/news/gary-hart-scandal-front-runner

[2] https://www.history.com/news/presidential-affairs-jfk-lbj-fdr-harding-clinton-trump

1987

Fairness Doctrine eliminated. In August, the Federal Communications Commission ends the Fairness Doctrine requiring broadcasters to devote airtime to discussing controversial public interest issues and to air contrasting views regarding them. Conservatives had lobbied for repeal on the grounds it favored liberal opinion. The change will have profound effects on presidential and other elections as it helps stoke political polarization.[1]

 

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/01/17/how-policy-decisions-spawned-todays-hyperpolarized-media/

1988

Rise of conservative talk radio. One year after the end of the Fairness Doctrine, The Rush Limbaugh Show enters national syndication on AM and FM radio stations. It is the first of a growing number of right-wing radio and digital media outlets that will become de rigueur stops for Republican candidates.

1988

No tanks. Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts seeks to prove he’s tough on defense by riding in an Army tank at a campaign event. Photos of the diminutive Dukakis in an oversized helmet spark comparisons to Snoopy and provide devastating visual imagery for an ad[1] by Vice President George H.W. Bush.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRPZQ3UEN_Q

1988

Politics gets personal. Democrat Michael Dukakis’ candidacy takes a fatal hit when CNN’s Bernard Shaw opens a debate asking about his wife, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"[1] Instead of showing his personal side, Dukakis gives a cold and technocratic answer that turns off voters who later elevate Vice President George H.W. Bush to the White House.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUXz4wFDAo0

1992

TV salvages a campaign. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign teeters on the brink of extinction after tabloid reports of an affair with a lounge singer, Gennifer Flowers. On January 26, he and his wife Hillary go on CBS’ 60 Minutes[1] to respond to the charges of infidelity. “You know, I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” Hillary insists. “I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together.” The segment saves Clinton’s candidacy and his political career.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IpJUfy-Roo

1992

Meeting voters where they are. On June 3, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton plays the saxophone[1] on The Arsenio Hall Show. The late night appearance is meant to “show a different side of Bill Clinton and reach a different audience - young voters,”[2] says Clinton campaign staffer Karen Finney. From then on, candidates routinely reach out to audiences who don’t watch news shows, from the Super Bowl[3] to The View,[4] from Between Two Ferns[5] to Desus & Mero.[6] “You have to meet people where they are, not expect them to come to ABC or NBC news,” says Kiki McLean, a veteran of six Democratic presidential campaigns.[7]

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_WuGDYawFQ

[2] Original interview with Karen Finney

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHG3jGq0w7c

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4kyu_wtIrE

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrkPe-9rM1Q

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_d9e2qv6PQ

[7] Original interview with Kiki McLean

1992

First presidential debates to feature three candidates. Republican Pres. George H.W. Bush, Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and independent businessman Ross Perot of Texas share the stage. Second debate marks first time town hall format featuring average Americans is used. 

1992

What time is it? The most memorable moment of the debates that year comes as a woman asked President George H.W. Bush how the national debt and recession affects him personally. As she speaks, the camera catches Bush checking his wristwatch.[1] The visual message conveyes a lack of interest and impatience and Bush’s rambling answer only reinforces his body language. Bill Clinton makes him a one-term president in November.

 

 

[1] https://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1996/debates/history/1992/index.shtml

2000

The danger of the split screen. Vice President Al Gore sees his candidacy suffer after a TV split screen during a debate catches him looking bored -- sighing, rolling his eyes and shaking his head as opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. spoke. Viewers at home interpret his reaction as smug and disrespectful while Saturday Night Live’s Darrell Hammond’s parody[1] is so devastating that Gore’s campaign makes him watch the skits to see how he was coming off.[2]

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDgRRVpemLo

[2] Saturday Night Live and the 1976 Presidential Election: A New Voice Enters Campaign Politics” - William Horner an M. Heather Carver. McFarland & Company Inc. 2018; p. 17

2003

First campaign website. Democrat Howard Dean becomes the first politician to use the internet when he sets up a campaign website[1] for fundraising and to recruit volunteers for his presidential bid. The former Vermont governor’s campaign raises more than $40 million online in small donations, a harbinger of political fundraising to come.

 

[1] https://www.politico.com/story/2012/09/how-deans-wh-bid-gave-birth-to-web-campaigning-081834

2004

A moment goes viral. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is the front-runner in the Iowa Democratic caucuses until he comes in a disappointing third. Addressing his supporters that night, Dean energetically vows to fight on: "Not only are we going to New Hampshire, we’re going to South Carolina! And Oklahoma! And Arizona! ….. And then we’re going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House. Yaaaaaaaay." Journalists in the hall thought nothing was unusual in Dean’s delivery but on TV, critics agree, he looks and sounds unhinged. The “Dean scream”[1] soon becomes the butt of comedy skits, dance remixes and JibJab videos and a sign of viral political moments to come.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6i-gYRAwM0

2004

“Swift-boating.” A Republican-supported political action committee called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth runs television ads questioning Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s military record in the Vietnam War.[1] A decorated veteran, Kerry had first come to national attention years earlier as a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War testifying on C-SPAN,[2] gaining conservative enmity ever since. The televised charges against Kerry sink his campaign to unseat President George W. Bush and addes the term “swift-boating” -- meaning 

 

[1] http://cphcmp.smu.edu/2004election/swift-boat-veterans-for-truth/

[2] https://www.mprnews.org/story/2017/09/26/history-john-kerry-speaks-against-vietnam-war

2008

Late night weighs in. When Republican presidential candidate John McCain cancels an appearance at the last minute on the Late Show, citing the unfolding financial crisis and saying he needs to rush back to Washington, D.C., host David Letterman laces into him on air for more than nine minutes.[1] Showing a live feed of McCain prepping for an interview on the CBS Evening News, Letterman quips, "He doesn't seem to be racing to the airport, does he?" McCain later apologizes but the incident will be seen reflecting poorly on his judgment. 

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aR5FGkpfsbM

2008

Organizing online. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama ramps up the use of the web in his presidential nomination bid. Through My.BarackObama.com, the campaign “planned 200,000 offline events, formed 35,000 groups, posted 400,000 blogs, and raised $30 million on 70,000 personal fund-raising pages.”[1] His campaign also runs ads and speeches on YouTube.[2]

 

[1] https://www.fastcompany.com/1207594/how-chris-hughes-helped-launch-facebook-and-barack-obama-campaign

[2] https://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/07/how-obamas-internet-campaign-changed-politics/

2012

Everyone's a broadcaster. Citizen journalism, a growing phenomenon with the advent of smartphones, zings Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign after secretly filmed video[1] of him at a private fundraiser of wealthy donors goes viral. Romney is heard deriding the “47 percent” of Americans who support President Barack Obama as “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.” Four years later, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton will get in similar hot water when she is caught on camera at a fundraiser describing Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”[2]

 

[1] https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/09/secret-video-romney-private-fundraiser/

[2] https://time.com/4486502/hillary-clinton-basket-of-deplorables-transcript/

2012

Hashtags go viral. The debates between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are amplified for the first time on Twitter. After Romney inartfully answers a question on gender inequities in the workplace by noting the “binders full of women”[1] his gubernatorial staff brought to him, #bindersfullofwomen begins trending on Twitter, underscoring his difficulty reaching women voters. In a later debate, Obama responds to Romney’s criticism that the Navy is “smaller than any time since 1917,” by saying, “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed.” #horsesandbayonets[2] is soon retweeted 6.5 million times.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfXgpem78kQ

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/us-news-blog/2012/oct/23/horses-and-bayonets-presidential-debate

2015

Reality TV enters politics. Donald Trump, a New York businessman and star of the TV reality show The Apprentice, dramatically descends an escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. The choreographed entrance will be followed by his attack on Mexicans as rapists and his vow to build a wall on the southern border.

2016

Counterprogramming controversy. Donald Trump’s campaign faces the biggest crisis of his campaign after the Washington Post[1] releases an Access Hollywood video in which he boasts about women that “when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. ... Grab them by the pussy.” He dismisses his words as “locker room talk” but apologizes before going into his second debate with Hillary Clinton. Two hours before that meeting, though, he holds a surprise news conference featuring three women who had accused President Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct. The spectacle is intended to neutralize the Access Hollywood tape and unsettle his rival. The stunt “totally transformed the debate into a made-for-television show,”[2] says Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-recorded-having-extremely-lewd-conversation-about-women-in-2005/2016/10/07/3b9ce776-8cb4-11e6-bf8a-3d26847eeed4_story.html

[2] Original interview with Julian Zelizer, Princeton political historian

2016

Social media comes into its own. Donald Trump’s use of Twitter to directly communicate with his followers, smashing rules of polite political discourse, dominates mainstream media’s attention to his campaign. While TV ads remain an important campaign tool, Twitter, YouTube and other online platforms grow as a way to reach younger audiences. 

2020

Podcasting comes to politics. The explosion of long-form podcasts in every form includes presidential campaigns as media outlets launch politics-centric shows. Candidates also take time to be heard on podcasts, sometimes controversially, as when Democrat Bernie Sanders appears on conservative comedian Joe Rogan’s talk show.[1]

[1] https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/24/politics/bernie-sanders-joe-rogan-endorsement/index.html

2020

Buying influence. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s deep-pocketed and short-lived campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination features social media saturation on every platform. Most notably, the billionaire hires[1] some of the most influential meme-makers to create content to promote his candidacy on Instagram.

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/13/style/michael-bloomberg-memes-jerry-media.html

2020

Campaigning in a time of coronavirus. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont debate in CNN’s Washington, D.C. bureau instead of before a planned live audience in Arizona. The change of venue, made amid the national COVID-19 health emergency, marks the first time presidential candidates debate in a closed TV studio since the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates.

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