During presidential elections in the United States, it has become customary for the main candidates (almost always the candidates of the two largest parties, currently the Democratic Party and the Republican Party) to engage in a debate. The topics discussed in the debate are often the most controversial issues of the time, and arguably elections have been nearly decided by these debates (e.g., Nixon vs. Kennedy). Candidate debates are not constitutionally mandated, but it is now considered a de facto election process. The debates are targeted mainly at undecided voters; those who tend not to be partial to any political ideology or party.For the 2016 presidential debates, see United States presidential election debates, 2016. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon participate in the second 1960 presidential debate, held in the NBC studios in Washington D.C. and narrated by Frank McGee.
Presidential debates are held late in the election cycle, after the political parties have nominated their candidates. The candidates meet in a large hall, often at a university, before an audience of citizens. The formats of the debates have varied, with questions sometimes posed from one or more journalist moderators and in other cases members of the audience. Between 1988 and 2000, the formats have been governed in detail by secret memoranda of understanding (MOU) between the two major candidates; an MOU for 2004 was also negotiated, but unlike the earlier agreements it was jointly released by the two candidates. Debates have been broadcast live on television, radio, and in recent years, the web. The first debate for the 1960 election drew over 66 million viewers out of a population of 179 million, making it one of the most-watched broadcasts in U.S. television history. The 1980 debates drew 80 million viewers out of a 226 million. Recent debates have drawn decidedly smaller audiences, ranging from 46 million for the first 2000 debate to a high of over 67 million for the first debate in 2012. A record-breaking audience of over 84 million people watched the first 2016 presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. This number does not reflect online streaming.