Matthew Pinsker: Who won the Debates?
Choosing a winner in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates is actually difficult. There were seven debates altogether and, the supporters and opponents of each man and the newspapers who covered them, they would call winners and losers after each of the debates. Most people thought that Lincoln struggled at first, then gained his footing during the course of the debates, and closed very strong in the final debates—especially the last one. By that point in the campaign—in mid-October—Douglas was losing his voice, he was hoarse, he was almost sickly. But the truth is that there is no real way to measure it.
The debaters were not actually on the ballot. So even though there were election results that some people interpret one way or the other, they were about a number of things not just about people’s respect or opposition to Douglas or Lincoln. They had to do with who they were voting for for state representative or state senator. But I do think, in a larger sense, we could say that, in the short-term, Douglas was the clear winner of the campaign because even though the Democratic party had ripped apart and he was being opposed, not just by Abraham Lincoln but by the President of the United States, James Buchanan, who was his leader, the Democratic Party Leader, Douglas still managed to hold together a coalition of Democrats in the state legislature that reelected him. So, in the short term, people were astounded that he had pulled it all off.
In the long term though, that rupture between Douglas and Buchanan and the split in Democratic party, that was mortal. Lincoln knew it and that’s why after the campaign was over he was actually quite satisfied. There are myths that he was depressed, but the truth is he knew that he had won a great advantage by holding together a Republican party, by helping further divide the Democrats, and by creating the conditions that would make a Republican president possible in 1860. He didn’t yet know he was going to be that man, but the debates helped make him the person who would become the first Republican president in office in 1861.