In reporting on political debates in the United States, political campaigns and opinion polls regularly ask who is the “winner” of the debate. Presidential elections (hopefully) have clear winners, but I would hope the point of a debate is to clarify policy differences to undecided voters, not to have a "winner" (and therefore a "loser").

When did this tendency to declare a debate "winner" originate? Is this a recent trend or have American political debates been phrased this way since early days?

  • To clarify, you're asking since when do political debates have a "winner", and not debates generally, correct?
    – BruceWayne
    Oct 23, 2020 at 19:26
  • 2
    @BruceWayne Hmm, I think non-political debates would be off-topic, so yes.
    – gerrit
    Oct 23, 2020 at 20:10

5 Answers 5


Since always.

Wikipedia list winners for the first modern presidential debates between Kennedy and Nixon in the 1960s.

Many observers have regarded Kennedy's win over Nixon in the first debate as a turning point in the election.

Nixon regained his lost weight, wore television makeup, and appeared more forceful than in his initial appearance, winning the second and third debates while the fourth was a draw...

I don't have a really good handle on the contemporary reporting. This article from the Guardian in 1960 seems reluctant to even accept the number of people who watched or heard the debate, let alone who those uncounted millions believed was the winner if such a concept existed.

However, this academic review from 1996 includes data from the time specifically highlighting the difference between the receivers of different media sources.

Survey conducted the day after the first Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate by a Philadelphia commercial research firm, Sindlinger & co., telephone interviewers asked respondents which candidate had won. They found radio and television audiences differed in their assessments.

This Science Direct article disputes that finding as a biased poll, but confirms that it did take place and other polling was conducted.

However, the Nixon radio victory emerged in only a single poll conducted by Sindlinger and Company. Considering other polling data reveals Sindlinger’s finding is likely the result of a Republican bias in the sample and not a mass defection of Democrats swayed by Nixon’s substantive arguments. Voters found Kennedy ahead on substance as well as style.

  • 3
    You're linking to the anchor with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but the linked article and your answer mentions the first interpretation of a a debate winner as starting in the 1960s. The linked sources are current interpretations of the debate back then. Did contemporary sources use phrases such as Kennedy having "won" the debate?
    – gerrit
    Oct 23, 2020 at 8:55
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    Fixed the anchor and referenced some secondary sources citing contemporary polling.
    – Jontia
    Oct 23, 2020 at 9:31
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    "Since always" and 1960s don't really fit together, do they? Oct 23, 2020 at 17:46
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    @EricDuminil - The Kennedy-Nixon debates were the first "modern" presidental debates. There wasn't really anything comparable before them. So "always" is equivalent to "since the modern presidential debate has existed".
    – Bobson
    Oct 23, 2020 at 17:55
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    @Bobson the word "modern" does not appear in the question, so the Lincoln-Douglas debates are on the table. In fact, the question asks about "political debates" rather than "presidential debates," making the choice of 1960 as the beginning of time all the more inappropriate.
    – phoog
    Oct 24, 2020 at 6:46

The idea of a public debate between two big ideas goes way back. Consider the 1860 Oxford evolution debate. A number of people spoke, but the big guns were evolution supporter Thomas "Darwin's Bulldog" Huxley and Bishop Samual "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce. Today everyone remembers it for the soundbites (from Wikipedia):

Wilberforce supposedly asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.[2] Huxley is said to have replied that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.

Today Huxley is remembered as the winner, chiefly on the strength of this one-line zinger. However at the time Huxley is reported to have had difficulty addressing such a large audience, and many thought that Wilberforce had the better of it.

So, just like a presidential debate today; everyone arguing about who won.

  • 1
    In the US, the archetype of public and /or political debate is the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1958). Though it was certainly not the earliest, it was the most famous and the basis for the modern TV revival in the Kennedy-Nixon Debates. Oct 25, 2020 at 14:45
  • @RBarryYoung Wrong century, possibly? Oct 26, 2020 at 13:05
  • Oops, right. That’s a typo. Oct 27, 2020 at 20:33

Since ancient Greece, if not before. The Phynx in ancient Athens was a place dedicated to debate of issues based around the idea of isēgoría, that everyone should have the ability to speak on issues of the day.

The whole point of debate is to convince people of your opinion, that there are perceived winners and losers in debates is perhaps the least surprising thing in the world. Here is a particular example: the Mytilenian debate.


Debates have always had winners. If the only purpose of debates were to describe the candidates' positions, they would just be campaign speeches. This is valuable, but it would be better served by a town hall style forum, where audience members ask questions directly. Debates give the candidates a chance to confront each other and demonstrate who is the more persuasive and who really has the best understanding of the situation. There's of course no formal winner in a political debate (unlike, for example, on a school debate team where a judge decides the winner). But pundits and voters can collectively decide which candidate was more persuasive and convinced more voters to support them.

Probably the most famous early public debates are the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, which are the earliest mentioned here so far. In these debates, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, who were then candidates for the Senate, debated primarily the question of slavery. While Douglas won the election, Lincoln's debate speeches were well received and widely republished (not as common then as now) and helped bring him the national prominence needed to win the Republican nomination in 1860.

While today we remember the 1980s as being dominated by the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the 1980 election was not a sure thing. Somewhat like today, the overall voting public had serious concerns about Reagan's age and his ability to withstand the stress of being President. Reagan already had a lead going in, but he had a good debate, convinced the country that he was up to the job, and never looked back.

Many well-remembered political moments happen during debates. "There you go again," "I feel your pain," "Whole binders full of women." The authentic, off-the-cuff remarks needed in a debate give viewers a more accurate understanding of the candidates than any number of advertising spots or prepared speeches. Like so much of politics, it's not really about the ideas, it's about the candidate, personally, as a leader.

  • 2
    "Will you shut up, man!"
    – Barmar
    Oct 24, 2020 at 16:32

They don't have a winner in the same way you do in sports, not yet anyway.

That said, today with this form of political activism supported by apps from various politicians that function based on big data and award supporters with ranks for working to support a political campaign that has turned it into a game of sorts for many that started with Obama and his campaign for president it almost seems to be turning into a sport and candidates are looking more like game show contestants and a winner for each 'match' starting to seem appropriate. Each team with it's own strategy to win and each team with a large fan base.

As for debates, you would have to score it somehow to decide what player won the event. You could score it based on a audience poll asking who sides to who and who is undecided prior to the event then comparing those results to a 2nd poll of the same people who just viewed the debate collected immediately after. The side who changed more of the audience to now side with them could be declared the winner.

You could also score based on total number of lies stated or times recent media buzz words and phrases were used and hand out king of lies crowns. In any case you have to set a scoring system that awards points based on something that is measurable for the event then add up the scores and now decide if you win when you have more points or when you have less. Maybe the winner would be the one who had fewer points for lies.

In all seriousness though, the winner is a subjective view and whoever you agreed with is in your view the speaker that won. That is what the debaters are really aiming to achieve.

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