The League of Women Voters became a household name in the mid-twentieth century as the award-winning sponsor of the US’s first televised presidential debates.
By bringing candidates directly into voters’ living rooms, the League gave faces to people who’d previously been simple names on a ballot – people whose choices would impact the lives of billions. They gave the American public the opportunity to ask candidates questions, side-by-side, and speak directly about the issues that mattered most.
How did this happen – and why did Leagues stop sponsoring the debates in 1988?
The League’s History Sponsoring Presidential Debates
As a nonprofit dedicated to empowering voters with the tools and information they need to cast their ballots, the League has hosted candidate debates since its founding in the 1920s.
“These forums were held at the local and state level -- in meeting halls, churches, synagogues, schools, and eventually on the radio,” described former League president Nancy M. Neuman. In 1976, they took things even further by sponsoring the first ever televised, nonpartisan debate between candidates in the presidential election – in this instance, Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale.
The “reason for doing this was educating the public about the nominees and their political platforms and what they would say they would do so we could hold them accountable,” said Dorothy Ridings, the League’s president at the time of the first debate. The debate allowed Americans across the country to see the two candidates side by side for the first time, addressing the same issues in a nonpartisan setting. The League received an Emmy award for Outstanding Achievement in Broadcast Journalism for sponsoring the 1976 debate.
Following the success of 1976, the League went on to sponsor the 1980 and 1984 presidential debates, focusing on informing voters through a nonpartisan lens. “The League is proud that we were able to bring Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, John Anderson, Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, Robert Dole, George Bush, and Geraldine Ferraro before the voters in debates that proved informative even as campaigns were proving more and more image-driven and scripted,” Neuman stated.
Yet as Neuman hinted, candidates sought control over their images even on the debate floor. In 1987, the chairpersons of the Democratic and Republican parties announced their intention to sponsor their own debates. They encouraged the League – and its nonpartisan, third-party perspective, by affiliation – to stand aside.
The League was explicit in its opposition to this move. How could an organization set up by political parties offer an unbiased, nonpartisan forum for debate?
“Obviously, the political parties have a huge stake in the outcome of debates and elections,” Neuman said. “And obviously, a political party will not be party to an event that puts its titular head at risk.”
The League moved forward with its own plans for a nonpartisan debate. But on September 28, representatives from the nominated Bush and Dukakis campaigns presented the League with an agreement that gave the campaigns the power to:
Pack the debate hall with their own supporters and relegate press to the back two rows;
Control the selection of the people who asked candidates questions during the debate;
Determine the debate’s format;
Restrict what the television cameras could take pictures of during the debate.
In response, on October 3, 1988, the League withdrew its sponsorship of the presidential debate.
Where Does the League Stand on Debates Now?
After withdrawing from the presidential debates, the League continued to sponsor debates, forums, and other opportunities for candidates on the state and local levels to speak directly to the public. They’ve also taken strides to provide crucial candidate information online through VOTE411.org, where voters can find comprehensive candidate guides that show where hundreds of candidates stand on issues like climate change, education, public safety, and more.
Support the League's work sponsoring debates across the country!
In 2022 alone, Leagues held more than 3,075 candidate debates and forums ahead of the midterm elections. These included both virtual and in-person events where voters were able to hear from candidates running for elected office.
League supporters still frequently ask if we’ll ever return to sponsoring presidential debates. Ahead of the last 2020 presidential election, “MBAMBA3” on Reddit wrote, “I'm a boomer and remember how much better moderated presidential debates used to be when [LWV] ran them!”
While we’re flattered by these comments, LWV has no plans to return to sponsoring the presidential debates. However, we continue to support opportunities for candidates to speak directly and candidly to the public. Candidate debates are a crucial part of our democracy, and we’ll be hosting plenty of state and local conversations in the years to come.
To get involved in candidate outreach near you, join your local League today!
The Latest from the League
WASHINGTON — The League of Women Voters of the United States reached more than 27 million voters in the 2022 midterm election cycle last fall, resulting in the organization’s largest voter engagement program ever in a federal election cycle. LWVUS released its annual election report today highlighting the organization's impact in the 2022 midterm elections.
Learn where your candidates stand on the issues that matter most with your candidate guide from VOTE411.
This Election Day, millions of Americans across the country will head to the polls to cast a vote. Attending a candidate debate is one of the best ways voters can prepare for the polls. But how can viewers get the most out of the experience?
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