With the highly anticipated 2008 presidential election less than a month away, all eyes seem fixed on recent debates. In fact, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD)—a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization established in 1987 to organize all presidential and vice presidential debates—called these recent debates “a breakthrough in the history of televised debates.” The CPD, who has sponsored presidential and vice presidential debates since 1988, makes sure Americans receive and understand each candidate’s platform come election time.
The CPD web site serves as a resource for both current and past debates. Users can find information on political debates as early as the 1858 Illinois senatorial debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, which paved the way for the 1860 presidential election.
Historic political debates lacked the form and order of more contemporary debates, creating somewhat arbitrary gaps in CPD’s debate history. The first significant gap is between the 1858 debates and the 1948 presidential primary debates between Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen. After 1948, no other public debates took place until the 1956 Florida Democratic presidential primary debate between Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver, followed by the 1960 presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. One final sixteen-year gap occurred—1960-76—before regularity took form in the 1976 presidential debates, not only breaking the debate dry spell but also introducing the concept of vice presidential debates. Since then, debates have included two to three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate each election year.
Visitors to the CPD site can also access unofficial debate transcripts from 1960 through today, excluding that sixteen-year break from 1960-76.
In order for the CPD to contribute to an “informed and engaged society,” their web site also includes ways to get involved with presidential debates, whether it be hosting a debate or participating in a DebateWatch, a voter education program that allows community members to gather with friends and family to watch and discuss televised debates. This CPD outreach program isn’t limited to just small community gatherings; it also includes Voter Education Partners, which are organizations and associations wanting to host a DebateWatch.
One final resource on CPD’s web site is a list of links to other helpful political debate web sites, such as the National Archives and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.