Make or break: the defining moments of presidential debates

As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump prepare to meet in the first of three 2016 presidential debates, we look back over 50 years of head-to-head bouts

1960: A defining moment for TV and politics. The first and possibly still the most famous American presidential debate pitted the telegenic Democrat John F Kennedy against Republican vice-president Richard Nixon. The clammy Nixon was recovering from illness and had a five oclock shadow but refused makeup. TV viewers are said to have judged Kennedy the winner, whereas radio listeners gave it to Nixon or called it a draw. Kennedy won a narrow election. He was assassinated three years later.

1976: Republican president Gerald Ford, who succeeded Nixon after the Watergate scandal, had been closing the gap on Democrat Jimmy Carter but then remarked: There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration. It was seen as a critical gaffe in the context of the cold war and Carter went on to win the election.

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Gerald Ford Debating Jimmy Carter. Photograph: Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images

1980: Carter accused Republican Ronald Reagan of planning to cut Medicare healthcare funding for the elderly. Reagan, who had complained that Carter was misrepresenting his positions on numerous issues, said with a chuckle: There you go again. The audience erupted. The duel attracted 80.6 million viewers, the most ever for a presidential debate, according to Nielsen, though Clinton v Trump is expected to shatter that record.

1984: Reagan, at 73 the oldest president in US history, took the sting out of the issue of his age during the second debate with Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, 56, with this line: I want you to know that, also, I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponents youth and inexperience. Reagan was re-elected.

1988: Democrat Michael Dukakis, taking on Republican vice-president George HW Bush, was asked whether he would support the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife. No, I dont, Bernard, the Massachusetts governor replied. And I think you know that Ive opposed the death penalty during all of my life. He was criticised as cold and unemotional and lost the election.

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Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis answers questions. Photograph: AP

1988: In the vice-presidential debate, Bushs running mate Dan Quayle compared himself with John F Kennedy. Democratic senator Lloyd Bentsen replied shot back: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, youre no Jack Kennedy. It is probably the most famous line ever uttered in a vice-presidential debate and has been much parodied since.

1992: In a three-way contest with Democrat Bill Clinton and businessman Ross Perot, President George HW Bush made the fatal mistake of looking his watch. It gave the impression of a haughty, aloof incumbent who did not want to be there and took too much for granted. Bush later admitted what had been on his mind: Only 10 more minutes of this crap. He lost to Clinton.

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