John Kerry and George Bush courtesy NBC
Who ever thought the presidential primary debates would be one of the biggest TV attractions of the year? Cable news channels have reaped record ratings and even the broadcast networks have been vying for the events because of viewer interest. It should only grow more intense when the two nominees meet in the fall. The debates are already scheduled for Sept. 26, Oct. 7 and Oct. 15. But getting the candidates to participate has never been easy according to a new book Inside the Presidential Debates ( shop by Craig L. Lamay and Newton N. Minow, a former FCC commissioner and vice chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has organized the face-offs in every election year since 1976. The Biz talked to the authors about what makes the debates so great. One surprising fact in the book is how for 16 years there were no presidential debates because it was logistically impossible. The federal government's equal-time law required every declared candidate to be included. Now only those who reach 15 percent in the national polls make the cut.
Craig L. Lamay:
The whole point was to ensure that minor-party or third-party candidates would not be excluded from press coverage, particularly in lots of communities where a television station might favor a particular candidate. The idea was to make sure all candidates' views get equal opportunity to be heard. The intention was good, but like many well-intentioned things, it had a downside. But it was President Ford who really prompted the change in the law because he was so far down in the polls. He wanted to debate Jimmy Carter.
Newton N. Minow:
Years later, Ford said, "I think the debates helped me. You've got to remember, I was 32 points behind and I almost won the election." Your book points out how both Presidents Johnson and Nixon didn't want to debate their challengers, so the equal-time law wasn't changed. Now it seems that it would be impossible for a presidential candidate to avoid it.
Young people who have grown up with presidential debates expect them. I don't think any candidate can escape it.
Lamay: Absolutely. Remember in 1992 when President George H.W. Bush [who balked at debating Bill Clinton and Ross Perot] was followed around on the campaign trail by the guy in the chicken suit? If you avoided a debate today, you'd have millions of virtual chickens [all over the Internet]. I love the stories about the conditions the campaigns try to enforce for the debates.
A lot of that kind of stuff is posing - like two roosters in a yard. It doesn't affect the substance of the debates at all. The negotiations for the first debate between Bush and Clinton were about the placement of water glasses. At one point, they wanted to put them on the floor. Then the campaigns realized that to pick them up the candidates would have to bend over and kind of moon a national television audience. Suddenly they both realized they should put them on the table. Has it gotten harder to get the broadcast networks to schedule time for the debates because they've ceded so much news coverage to cable and are reluctant to preempt entertainment programming?
Not so far, but I think in time it's going to get tougher. As of now they're all going to carry it. The first 2004 debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry set a record with 62.5 million viewers. Will a meeting between Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton top that?
I think it will, absolutely. It will be higher and the debates will be repeated and distributed in all kinds of new ways on the Internet. Every American will have a chance to see them. Will we ever have a presidential debate that's only shown online?
At some point that will happen.
Lamay: We did have some [like that] among the primary debates. I don't see why it wouldn't be in 2008, even if it were not done by the debate commission. You've been around for all of the debates, Mr. Minow. What's your favorite moment?
I was at the debate in Cleveland in 1980 when Ronald Reagan said to Jimmy Carter, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" At that moment I knew the election was over.