History Proves that Presidential Debates Matter

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Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN, the author of Presidential Ambition (HarperCollins, 2000). His HNN blog is POTUS.

The perceived winners of presidential debates, in every case since the first one held forty-four years ago, have always gone on to win the presidency. Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II ... each was generally regarded as the over-all winner in the presidential debates that occurred during the year in which they were elected.

In 1960 Kennedy, relaxed, witty and tan, easily beat Nixon, who, especially in the first debate, came across as awkward, insincere, and tired. As an Atlanta columnist put it, Nixon looked like a "salesman of cemetery plots." Though Nixon made a better impression in the subsequent three debates, what happened in the first was what lingered in the public consciousness, defining him in ways he found he never could escape. Deciding to debate Kennedy, it turned out, was the worst political miscalculation Nixon made that year. Asked a few weeks later why he agreed, he couldn't come up with an answer. He himself had argued earlier against debating Kennedy. "In 1946, a damn fool incumbent named Jerry Voorhis debated a young lawyer and it cost him the election" Nixon had told staffers. But when the networks made the offer to host a debate, Nixon, perhaps feeling that his manhood was at stake, found he couldn't bring himself to refuse.

In the next presidential debate in 1976, Carter easily bested Ford, who is remembered for making the bizarre declaration that Poland wasn't under Soviet domination. It was the first time a gaffe contributed to the defeat of a candidate. Ford said afterward he didn't even realize at the time that he'd made a gaffe. He had and it was serious. As a result of a brief exchange with a reporter, he had instantly thrown away the key edge he had over Carter, his experience as an incumbent president and the presumption that he knew more than the challenger about running the country.

In 1980 Carter found himself up against a real pro, the former star of the General Electric Theater. Ronald Reagan demonstrated repeatedly in his encounters why politicians hated to share the same stage with him. (After an encounter in 1967 Robert Kennedy groused to an aide as he made his exit, "Don't ever put me on with that sonofabitch again.") Carter attempted to show that Reagan was a scary warmonger, but it was Carter who frightened people when he claimed, in his notorious answer to a question about nuclear weapons, that he consulted his teenage daughter Amy for advice. "I had a discussion with Amy the other day before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry and the control of nuclear arms [was]."

When Carter accused Reagan of wanting to cut the Medicare program, Reagan famously cocked his head, in a moment that had been scripted during rehearsals, "There you go again." Carter never recovered from the crack. In his closing remarks Reagan successfully shifted the nature of the election. Carter until then had succeeded in making Reagan's competence to hold the presidency the critical question facing voters. In a few sentences Reagan turned the election into a referendum on Carter's handling of the economy. "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" he asked. The answer was obvious. Polls which had showed the race in a dead heat suddenly reflected a last-minute surge for Reagan. A week later Reagan won in landslide.

Four years later Reagan fared badly in his first debate against Walter Mondale, who had shrewdly decided to throw the president off his stride with a surprise tactic. Instead of attacking Reagan as Carter had, Mondale devastatingly tossed him a compliment. "I like President Reagan," Mondale deadpanned. Reagan never recovered his equilibrium. Republicans had another explanation for Reagan's disastrous performance, the worst in his career. He'd been overprepared. Immediately following the debate, during which he appeared confused and stumbling, Nancy shouted at an aide, "What have you done to my husband?" Mondale walked away thinking "the guy is gone." Mondale added, "It's scary. He's not really up to it."

In the second debate Reagan, now under the tutelage of media wizard Roger Ailes, fared better. Asked, as he knew he would be, about his age, which had become an issue as a result of the first debate, Reagan humorously remarked, as everybody remembers, "I refuse to make my opponent's youth and inexperience an issue in this campaign." The crowd roared. So did Mondale, who smiled. Game over.

In 1988 Dukakis appeared to have the edge over Bush going into the first of their two debates. Dukakis, after all, had been the star of his own television show, "The Advocates," in which he jousted with the country's leading lawyers and politicians. And in their first encounter he and Bush came out about even, Bush scoring points when he ridiculed Dukakis as a "card-carrying member of the ACLU," Dukakis when he returned fire: "Of course the vice president is questioning my patriotism. I don't think there's any question about that. And I resent it."

At the second debate Bush made fun of the one-liners Dukakis was using, remarking, "Is this the time to unleash our one-liners?" Then, after a dramatic pause, "That answer was as clear as Boston Harbor." But it was Dukakis's answer to the very first question of the night that defeated him. CNN's Bernard Shaw asked if Dukakis would support the death penalty if a man raped and murdered his wife. Dukakis, in robot-mode, responded with the dry answer he'd given on dozens of other occasions when reporters asked him about his opposition to capital punishment. Bush, who came across as more human, afterward referred to Dukakis as an Ice Man. The audience agreed.

In 1992 and 1996 Bill Clinton demonstrated his remarkable skills as a presidential debater, besting Perot, Bush and Dole. Perot in the first debate in 1992 had won more laugh lines but by the second debate seemed to many to be a little too glib. When he repeated the joke he had made in the first debate, "I'm all ears," it fell flat. Bush notoriously glanced repeatedly at his watch in view of the camera. It reinforced the impression he was disdainful of the process, which the voters (rightly) took as an insult. (Free advice to all-would be debaters: Pretend, even if you don't agree, that debates are vital to the survival of democracy. George W.: This especially applies to you.)

In 2000 Al Gore was expected to demolish George W. in the debates. He didn't. That worked to W.'s advantage -- evidence of how vital it is to win the game of "expectations" in advance of the debates. By not losing the debates W. actually was perceived as a winner. Gore's problem was not that he lost the debates; many people thought that he had scored more hits than Bush. But three different Al Gores showed up at the three debates. In the first debate there was Arrogant Al, sneering and huffing while Bush spoke. In the second there was Milquetoast Al, now so meek and mild that he appeared to have been drugged. In the final debate Normal Al showed up -- but by then it was too late. The indelible impression had been left that he was uncomfortable in his own skin, as the conventional wisdom had it.

Four presidential debates have probably contributed decisvely to the outcome of an election: 1960 (Nixon/Kennedy), 1980 (Carter/Anderson/Reagan), 1988 (Bush I/Dukakis), 2000 (Bush II/Gore). All four races had one thing in common; polls showed the contests were close, just as they do this year. The chance that history will repeat itself -- putting the victor in the debate in the White House -- is palpable.

This article was adapted from a piece first published by TomPaine.com in 2000.

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John E. Moser - 9/26/2004

Obviously that would depend on the presence or absence of other information. What was potentially explosive about the CBS memos was that they amounted to the only hard evidence that Bush shirked his duty in the Guard. The rest of it is based on rumor and innuendo, much of it coming from Bill Burkett, who has been wholly discredited as a witness with a personal vendetta against the president. The only reason so much attention has been paid to this issue is that there is considerable misunderstanding as to how the National Guard actually operates (it is hardly uncommon for Guard members to miss meetings and still be considered in good standing--there is no such thing as AWOL in the Guard). And, of course, there is no shortage of folks who are prepared to believe the worst about George W. Bush, without actually taking time to examine the validity of the charges.

To return to the point about the Holocaust, if we didn't already have overwhelming evidence of mass murder in Nazi concentration camps, and suddenly suspicious memos appeared suggesting that mass murders did take place, the investigation would focus first on the validity of the memos, and only then on the substance of their contents.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 9/26/2004

We should care if those documents are simply a random piece of evidence that happens to fit other facts. The fact that the documents are fake does indeed warrent criticism and condemnation for being aired, but the substance of the message (that is, what the documents suggest) has been talked about long before these documents ever hit the scene.

To answer your question, "If someone were to release a series of memos which suggested that the Holocaust did not happen, would our first instinct as historians be to consider their "substance," or to test their authenticity?"

Since the argument that the Holocaust did not happen would be dependent on these memos, then their ID would determine the validity of the argument.

However, if someone released a series of memos saying that the Holocaust DID happen, and those documents were proven forgeries, would that mean that the Holocasust really did not happen?

John E. Moser - 9/26/2004

Why should we care about the "substance" of phony documents? If someone were to release a series of memos which suggested that the Holocaust did not happen, would our first instinct as historians be to consider their "substance," or to test their authenticity?

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 9/25/2004

Clearly, Rather has given fodder to the popular conservative myth about the media. However, to me it only proves the rule. The debate over the documents has focused almost exclusively on their poor authenticity and not on the substance of what they say. As a result, people are left to concluce that the documents forgery somehoe negates all of the other evidence and ambiguity in the record.

Compare this with the SBVFT coverage, and I think you will see a rather odd choice of coverage given to one over the other.

John E. Moser - 9/25/2004

Yup, that's it. The national media just LO-OVES George W. Bush. That Dan Rather sure is a right-winger, isn't he? Clever how he reported on those forged documents, knowing that it would end up helping the Bush campaign.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 9/25/2004

I agree totally with your post, but would add that Gore should have known that debates are not intended, nor are they designed to find out where the candidates stand on ths issues (do you really thik this is possible in 30 seconds or less?).

The biggest mistake Kerry can make is to assume that the debates are his opportunity to show how his policies are better than Bush's. Do that, certainly, but remember that the ral purpose of debates is to see how a canddiate responds, dresses, composes himself, and reacts to an opponent standing just a few feet away. My advice to Kerry: Smile a lot, look friendly, and show people how you are just as likable as Bush.

Jerry A Austiff - 9/24/2004

The 2000 Presidential debates were instrumental in Bush's election(if it can be fairly called that). If only because the debates were the national media's big opportunity to "stick it" one last time to Gore - Gore's audible sighing was enhanced by the debate managers, what was missed was the outrageous statements made by Bush that prompted Gore's reaction. The post debate coverage went from judging the debates a solid win by Gore (instant polling confirms this) to unfairly repeating Gore's sighing again and again. This was the same technique used against Howard Dean after the Iowa primary. Gore's handlers overreacted to the media frenzy over Gore's apparant condensation and browbeat their candidate into "humble Al" during the second debate. The third debate represented a strong Gore performance but this was "spun" by the national media into a confirmation that Gore wasn't really three people during the debates. The real fathers (and mothers) of the Bush presidency were the national media - it is astounding how much was made of Gore's created misstatements(invented the internet, Love Canal, etc.) and how little attention has been paid to Bush's colossial intentional misrepresentations. The quality of the arguments made by the participants in presidential debates is almost meaningless - it is the media spin afterwards that ultimately proves decisive.