Enjoy presidential debates? Thank Reagan.

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If you like presidential debates, thank Ronald Reagan.

Until Reagan ran for reelection in 1984, debates were a hit-and-miss thing. Only when both candidates thought it was in their interest to debate would debates take place. In 1960, the younger and less experienced candidate, John F. Kennedy, wanted to debate in order to close the stature gap with Vice President Richard Nixon. Nixon wanted to debate because he was trailing in the polls and thought he was a really great debater.

In each of the next three elections, no debates occurred because one candidate believed he had more to lose than to gain. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was way ahead in the polls in 1964, and President Nixon, who was way ahead in 1972, saw nothing to be gained from appearing side by side on live television with their debate-hungry opponents. Nixon avoided debates in 1968 because — surprise! —he’d gotten skunked in 1960.

In 1976 and 1980, debates occurred because the interests of the candidates coincided. Former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter wanted to debate President Gerald Ford in 1976 to establish his presidential bona fides, and Ford wanted to debate Carter because he was way behind in the polls. In 1980 it was the incumbent Carter who was way behind and the challenger Reagan who wanted the luster of a joint appearance with the president.

Nineteen eighty-four was the crucial year. Reagan was both the incumbent president and miles ahead, the exact formula for backing off from debates. But Reagan just thought debates were something a candidate ought to do, and two debates took place between him and his opponent, Walter Mondale. (The first one, in which Reagan seemed doddery at times, cost him dearly until he turned in a strong appearance in the second.)

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