Yesterday was the first Presidential Debate for the 2020 election and we are in full swing until election day, November 3rd.  Although many of us take the debates for granted as a necessary part of campaigning, this was not always the case; Presidential debates are a relatively modern convention and there is a rich history to be found using both free resources and databases available to the UW Madison community.

While the first televised Presidential debate occurred in 1960, there were a few preceding events that are recognized as "setting the stage" for debates to come. The first were the Lincoln - Douglas Debates of 1858.  Unsurprisingly, there are no transcripts or videos available from that time, but in 1994, C-Span conducted a reenactment of all seven debates and this collection can be accessed in their video library. The Law Library also has several books on the topic available for checkout.

The country didn't see the candidates come together to debate again until 1948 and 1956, when the Republicans and then Democrats respectively hosted primary debates. The 1948 debate between Governors Harold E. Stassen and Thomas E. Dewey aired on Oregon radio and a recording can be downloaded from the University of Rochester.  In 1956, the first televised debate occurred between Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver.  This debate aired on ABC, but was recently digitized by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and can be found on their YouTube channel.

You can find a brief history of all debates on the website for The Commission on Presidential Debates, a non-partisan organization that has sponsored general election Presidential debates in every election since 1988.  Their website links you to transcripts, videos, and brief facts for all the debates since 1960. Transcripts can also be found at The American Presidency Project, along with a rich collection of other Presidential documents and primary source material. 

Hungry for more than just passive viewing?  There are several great resources available with statistics and discussion of debate topics from Presidential elections as well. OurCampaigns hosts data including election results themselves, but also information and photos on the candidates, polls, advertisements, endorsements, finance reports, predictions, the most important news items, district maps and data and mapping of what detailed data is available.

CQ Researcher provides unbiased, in-depth reporting and analysis on issues in the news; they host an excellent collection of articles on the Presidential Election and key issues arising during the debates, both modern and historical.

Researching historical Presidential debates and their topics can be a great start to writing an interesting law review article, becoming a better informed voter, and placing current events in historical context.  Whatever your motivation, happy researching and remember the last day to register to vote in Wisconsin is October 14th!

Submitted by Elizabeth Manriquez on October 13, 2020

This article appears in the categories: Law Library

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