Perhaps the most substantive televised debate of all was the first one, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, which Nixon was considered to have won on substance on the radio, while the cooler and more appealing Kennedy won on television. Since these weren’t true debates, the concept of “winning” one of these odd encounters was always amorphous. (To be sure, many questions by panels of journalists were designed less to stimulate debate than to challenge one of the candidates.)
Over time, the debates came to resemble professional wrestling matches, and more substantive debates were widely panned in the press. Points went to snappy comebacks and one-liners. Witty remarks drew laughs from the audience and got repeated for days and remembered for years.
Some of them have been less than hilarious, but they did the job of dominating reaction to a debate. Whatever substance existed was largely ignored. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan debated the incumbent Jimmy Carter, Carter made a serious point about Reagan’s position on Medicare, and Reagan’s riposte, “There you go again,” a non-answer if ever there was one, brought down the house and that was that.