TIMELINE OF DEBATES IN BROADCAST MEDIA
By Andrea Stone
October 8: A 2nd debate or not?
The Commission on Presidential Debates announced on Oct. 7 that the second debate scheduled for Oct. 15 would be held virtually due to President Donald J. Trump’s COVID-19 infection. President Trump replied on Fox News (1) by saying he would not debate virtually and called it a “waste of time.” Yet in May of 2020, Frank Donatelli (2) predicted that all of the debates in 2020 could be virtual. Donatelli was President Ronald Reagan's assistant for political and intergovernmental affairs. He was also deputy chair of the Republican National Committee and therefore involved in debate preparations for Reagan in 1984 and U.S. Sen. Bob Dole in 1996. He recounts the ways the virtual Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 differed from the others, including lack of interruption from candidates and audience members, no opportunity for stage stunts, and an emphasis on the substance in candidates' remarks. Here is the full video of the third Nixon-Kennedy debate (3)
October 7: A conventional debate.
. Less than one week after their bosses’ belligerent face-off and despite the pandemic plexiglass between them, the debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris seems almost normal. The first Black and Asian woman on a national ticket was characterized as scoring points early by calling Trump’s handling of COVID “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.” Pence, whose boss has been accused of downplaying the pandemic to help his re-election, retorts by telling Harris to "Stop playing politics with people's lives.” Both candidates skirt moderator Susan Page’s questions, most notably when asked if they had spoken with their septuagenarian running mates about taking over if they are incapacitated. Pence’s constant interruptions prompt an instant meme when Harris says, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking. I’m speaking.” But the moment that generates the most buzz and Twitter accounts is when a fly lands on Pence’s head and, unlike the debater, observes the two-minute time limit before zizzing away.
Full transcript of debate here. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/10/08/next-presidential-debate-held-remotely-due-trumps-covid-19/5920908002/
October 2: The President tests positive.
After months of downplaying the severity of the pandemic and ignoring medical experts’ advice to wear masks and socially distance, the president tweets that he and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for coronavirus. The next evening, the world watches on TV as a reluctant President Trump walks to Marine One for a quick ride to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he becomes the first president hospitalized since 1981 when President Ronald Reagan was shot. Mindful of the ill effects on his campaign, Trump issues a grainy video to reassure the public. Then, after just 72 hours and his doctor saying he “may not entirely be out of the woods yet,” Trump returns to the White House. His return is timed for the prime time news and it is also filmed for a Trump campaign commercial that airs the next day. The event inspired critics to compare it menacingly to a Mussoliniand comically to Evita, as Trump stands on the balcony and defiantly removes his mask. Within days, nearly two dozen White House staffers report that they test positive for the COVID-19 virus even as a still-contagious Trump returns to work in the Oval Office and declares his diagnosis “a blessing from God.”
September 29: “Worst Presidential Debate Ever.”
Civility is a no-show at the first debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. The chaotic “hot mess” and “train wreck” of constant interruptions and name-calling is universally panned by pundits as possibly “a low point in American political discourse.” Trump talks over Biden or moderator Chris Wallace at least 128 times. Biden at one point says, "Will you shut up, man?” and calls Trump a “clown,” only getting his points across when he speaks directly to the camera and addresses the viewers at home. Trump is asked about a recent investigative story in the New York Times that reports the President has paid little taxes and is deep in debt. He replies that he has paid millions in taxes. But the most memorable exchange comes when President Trump is asked to condemn white supremacists. At first saying the left is a bigger danger, Trump asks for the name of a specific right-wing group to condemn. When Biden obliges, Trump says, “Proud Boys, Stand back and stand by.” The white supremacist group adopts the President’s words as its catch phrase.
August 24–27: Trump tears down wall between presidency
and electoral politics.
After COVID-19 restrictions quash Republican plans to hold their convention in Charlotte, N.C. and then Jacksonville, Fla., President Trump decides to stage the convention at the White House. In an unprecedented and ethically questionable move, the president accepts his party’s nomination before a packed crowd in the Rose Garden. The lack of masks and social distancing follows a convention that pays little attention to COVID-19 other than to suggest it is beaten and waning. Black speakers are noticeably overrepresented — given the community’s reportedly overwhelming support for Biden — in a strategy meant to assuage White suburban voters that President Trump is not racist. Prior to the speech, President Trump uses his skills as a reality TV star to stage a few moments for the cameras in the White House, including: the pardon of an ex-convict and the swearing in of a group of new citizens. Throughout this, the President enlists the help of administration officials and staffers despite the fact that these workers are forbidden by law from participating in partisan politics.
August 17-20: First virtual presidential convention.
With COVID-19 still raging, Democrats shelve their planned gathering in Milwaukee, Wis. for a virtual convention to nominate former Vice President Joe Biden. Instead of the usually hokey nominating roll call of states, homebound viewers are treated to a scenic and sometimes humorous (Rhode Island, the “calamari comeback state”) travelogue. The program includes not only party stars such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders but everyday Americans, including a woman who lost her father to COVID-19 and says, “His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life.” In a remarkable sign of what is at stake in the election, former President Barack Obama becomes the first former president to attack an incumbent at a convention. The next night, Biden accepts the nomination in a nearly empty hall in Delaware before heading outside to watch fireworks with supporters in a parking lot-turned-socially-distanced-drive-in theater.
Campaigning in a time of coronavirus. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- campaigning for the Democratic nomination -- debate in CNN’s Washington, D.C. bureau instead of before
a live audience in Arizona, as planned. The change of venue, made amid the global COVID-19 health emergency, marks the first time presidential candidates debate in a closed TV studio since the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates.
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 some of the most influential meme-makers to create content to promote his candidacy on Instagram.
Podcasting and politics. The explosion of long-form podcasts branches into presidential campaigns as media outlets launch politics-centric shows. Candidates also take time to be heard on podcasts, sometimes controversially, as when Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders appears on conservative comedian Joe Rogan’s talk show.
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.
Counterprogramming controversy. Donald Trump faces the biggest crisis of his campaign after the Washington Post 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 p----.” He dismisses his words as “locker room talk” but apologizes before going into his second debate with former Secretary of State 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,” says Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer.
 Original interview with Julian Zelizer, Princeton political historian
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.
Hashtags take off. 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” 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 is soon retweeted 6.5 million times.
Everyone's a broadcaster. Citizen journalism, a growing phenomenon with the advent of smartphones, zings Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign after secretly filmed video of him at a private fundraiser for 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.”
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.” His campaign also runs ads and speeches on YouTube.
Late night weighs in. When Republican presidential candidate John McCain cancels an appearance on the "Late Show" at the last minute, 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. 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 as reflecting poorly on his judgment.
“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. A decorated veteran, Kerry first came to national attention years earlier as a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War testifying on C-SPAN, gaining conservatives' enmity. The televised charges against Kerry sink his campaign to unseat President George W. Bush and launch the term “swift-boating” -- meaning to target someone, particularly a politician or other public figure, with a series of personal attacks.
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 say he looks and sounds unhinged. The “Dean scream” soon becomes the butt of comedy skits, dance remixes and JibJab videos and a sign of viral political moments to come.
First campaign website. Democrat Howard Dean becomes the first politician to use the internet when he sets up a campaign website 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.
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, speaks. Viewers at home interpret his reaction as smug and disrespectful while "Saturday Night Live’s" Darrell Hammond’s parody is so devastating that Gore’s campaign makes him watch the skits to see how he is coming off.
 "Saturday Night Live and the 1976 Presidential Election: A New Voice Enters Campaign Politics” - William Horner and M. Heather Carver. McFarland & Company Inc. 2018; p. 17
What time is it? The most memorable moment of the debates this year comes as a woman asks President George H.W. Bush how the national debt and recession affect him personally. As she speaks, the camera catches Bush checking his wristwatch. The visual message conveys 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.
First presidential debates to feature three candidates. Republican President George H.W. Bush, Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and independent businessman Ross Perot of Texas share the stage. Their second debate marks the first time a town-hall format featuring average Americans is used.
Meeting voters where they are. On June 3, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton plays the saxophone 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,” 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 to "The View," and from "Between Two Ferns" to "Desus & Mero." “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.
 Original interview with Karen Finney
 Original interview with Kiki McLean
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" 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 Clinton 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 Bill Clinton’s candidacy and his political career.
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?" 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.
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 by Vice President George H.W. Bush.
Rise of conservative talk radio. One year after the end of the FCC's 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.
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.
Sex scandal sinks candidacy. Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, is forced to drop out in May after journalists uncover an extramarital affair. Until then, the sex lives of 20th-century candidates and presidents had been mostly ignored by the media
Using humor as a campaign tool. After a poor debate performance raises questions about Ronald Reagan, at 73 then the oldest president in history, the incumbent neutralizes the issue when he is 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's youth and inexperience.” The quip even gets a laugh from his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, who went on to lose in November.
Political ads with production values. President Ronald Reagan runs two of the most memorable and effective political ads in campaign history, “Morning in America,” and “Bear in the Woods.” “They were like mini-movies as polished as you’d see in Hollywood,” says Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer.
 Original interview with Julian Zelizer
“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.
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. The debate is remembered for Ford’s gaffe: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.”
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 reelection campaign. Ford himself exclaims “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” in a pre-recorded clip filmed in the Oval Office.
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 by winning the Iowa caucuses on January 24. The caucuses, previously ignored by most candidates, spell the end of party boss dominance in anointing nominees and transforms the early contest into a must for presidential hopefuls. 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.
 Original interview with Julian Zelizer
“The Great Communicator.” Former California Gov. 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.
Comedy meets politics. On November 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 that continues to this day.
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 Muskie's wife of excessive drinking. Muskie holds a press conference 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 question Muskie’s calm and strength to lead the nation and his campaign never recovers.
Softening an image. Republican Richard Nixon, viewed by many 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!”, he turns his campaign around by appearing more likable and cool. His Democratic rival, Hubert Humphrey, refuses the show’s invitation to appear, saying it would be undignified. He lost to Nixon in November.
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: “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.”
“Daisy” ad. President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign marks a turning point in political advertising history by airing the so-called “Daisy” ad showing a little girl counting petals followed 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 inspired about Goldwater’s temperament are widely credited with Johnson’s landslide victory in the fall.
First televised presidential debate. Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon meet before studio cameras in an event that underscores the importance of image over substance. TV viewers think the tanned, rested Kennedy wins the debate over a pale and tired Nixon even as radio listeners think Nixon prevails. 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."
Checkers Speech. Republican Richard Nixon uses television to save his political career to defuse a campaign financing controversy that had Dwight D. 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.
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.
First televised presidential political conventions. With the public looking on from home, conventions become less places where political decisions are made and more venues where candidates play to the cameras.
Pioneering electronic politicking. Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt is already a broadcasting pro thanks to monthly radio chats to his fellow New Yorkers when he employs the new technology to make him a national figure during the 1932 presidential race. A natural on radio, FDR would go on as president to famously host radio “fireside chats” to communicate with the American people.
First presidential conventions heard on radio. Political parties broadcast their conventions on radio, to mixed results. Listeners hear Democrats laboriously take 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis. Republicans use radio more effectively, broadcasting from a dedicated studio in New York to tout Calvin Coolidge for president. A GOP memo 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."