What Works (And Doesn't) at the Presidential Debates

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Mr. Troy’s latest book, MORNING IN AMERICA: HOW RONALD REAGAN INVENTED THE 1980S, will be published early next year by Princeton University Press. He is Professor of History at McGill University and a member of HNN's advisory board.

Toward the end of the leaden first 1976 presidential debate between President Gerald R. Ford and the Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter, a 25-cent capacitator short-circuited, silencing both the television and the radio relays. For twenty-seven minutes, while engineers tried to restore the sound, the two men vying for the presidency of the United States stood silent before 85 million viewers – except when the cameras momentarily panned away and the two wiped their brows.

Two weeks later, at the second debate, three separate sound systems prevented technical errors. But then what a candidate most fears occurred. With the Cold War still raging, President Ford declared, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” “That is the dumbest thing I ever heard!” Carter’s aide Stuart Eizenstat rejoiced offstage. The Democrats were especially pleased because the gaffe reinforced a popular perception, fueled by Chevy Chase’s Saturday Night Live skits, that Ford, despite being a Yale Law School graduate and former University of Michigan football star, was a dumb klutz.

As the 2004 presidential campaign enters debating season – with three joint appearances scheduled between John Kerry and George W. Bush, with a fourth vice presidential debate added – campaign aides, journalists, and viewers will be looking for the defining gaffe, the dramatic soundbite or image that transforms the campaign. In fact, over the last three decades more debates have been characterized by the nervous, overly-cautious silence of the first Ford-Carter meeting than the fleeting dramatics of the second. Much of the hype over the next few weeks will recall Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again,” quip to Jimmy Carter in 1980; an aging President Reagan’s rebound quip, “I’m not going to make an issue about Mr. Mondale’s age and experience,” to his younger challenger in 1984; or Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s body blow to his greener colleague and vice presidential rival in 1988, Dan Quayle: "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." But such moments have been rare, and not always defining. While Reagan surged after the 1980 debate, in 1984 he was already on his way to trouncing Walter Mondale, and Senator Bentsen’s riposte against Quayle did not defeat George Bush Senior.

Still, the rhetorical death watch will intensify the drama surrounding what often is a disappointing – and boring – confrontation. The dynamics of the twenty-seven miinute silence continue to dominate. Fear of stumbling can be paralyzing. Most candidates tend to be overprogrammed – after Ronald Reagan’s weak first debate in 1984, his campaign manager Paul Laxalt said the “briefing process … brutalized” the president. The tyranny of television and the searing, microscopic scrutiny of the media, put a premium on not rocking the boat. Hyperconscious of their every move in front of millions, Carter and Ford acted so cool as to be frozen in place.

Reporters also bear responsibility for the deflating outcomes. Journalists have placed themselves on banana peel patrol – and the way they report events influences the outcome. Ford’s internal polling in 1976 estimated that Gerald Ford beat Jimmy Carter during the second debate. Most viewers ignored the president’s premature, rhetorical liberation of Eastern Europe. Polling data in the Gerald Ford President Library shows that with each round of the ensuing news cycles, with each headline about Ford’s gaffe, Ford lost ground. By the end of the week, Ford’s pollster estimated they lost by 45 percentage points – a devastating turnaround that reflected the relentless media pounding. More recently, “spin alleys” have developed outside the debating halls, with both parties unleashing their respective attack dogs to feed the media beast and shape the “postgame” show.

Finally viewers, er voters, should also be blamed. As in so many other dimensions of modern politics, what voters say they want differs from how they act. Voters claim they want issue-oriented exchanges. But inevitably, when candidates focus on “just the facts,” a collective yawn arises rivaling the latest Florida hurricanes. John Kerry miscalculated this summer when he allowed the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” to trash his record. Americans wanted to see the fireworks, they wanted to see the candidate respond – and without an effective response many swing voters began to believe the charges.

Last week, Canwest reported that an undecided voter in Ohio gripped Senator Kerry’s hand and asked: “What are you going to tell somebody like me, who is on the fence?” Kerry denounced President Bush’s handling of Iraq, stared straight into her eyes and said, “I know how to get it done.” Rita Maris swooned: “I’m voting for him. He was not so uppity as to overlook me.”

Here is the key to the campaign, which rationalists and reporters overlook at their peril. Americans want to be heard and seen; they want to sense that the candidate is caring and is a leader. A shrewd candidate, while certainly addressing issues Americans care about, will also use discussion of the issues to show he cares. The challenge in the debates – as in most democratic politics -- is not just to get the right answer – but to answer in the right way.

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More Comments:

Val Jobson - 10/1/2004

A year or two ago, someone wrote about "incestuous amplification" where a group of like-minded people talk only amongst themselves and so become more and more divorced from reality. Remember that Bush said he does not read newspapers; he may be surrounded by courtiers who tell him what he wants to hear.

Maarja Krusten - 10/1/2004

Focus group

I tend to agree with the viewer poll (similar results on CNN and elsewhere). Karen Hughes said after the debate that Bush was emotionally drained after meeting with hurricane victimes and that was why he looked tired. Flashing back to 1960, Nixon looked tired in the first debate with Kennedy. His commitment to visit all the states during the campaign had overextended him and the fatigue showed. Also, Nixon had made an unexpectedly slow recovery from a minor accident where he had hurt his leg.

Biggest surprise for me, as a student of the presidency? How irritated Bush seemed at times. I've expressed concern elsewhere over the need for a President to be able to hear bad news and accept dissent among his inner circle. This has come up recently in discussions of the purported rift between the CIA, DOD, and the White House. (See comments about lousy options, need for honest brokers, in reaction to article at http://hnn.us/articles/7583.html.) Bush knew going in that he and Kerry would have major areas of disagreement. Bush's tone of exasperation made me wonder whether he has become too accustomed to operating in an "echo chamber," not a good environment in a White House. Somehow, every President seems to want to circle the wagons around him in the face of criticism, to some extent. For some it is disastrous, others are able to rise above the instinctive response to shut out critics and to learn to manage the turmoil tough challenges inevitably bring.

Maarja Krusten - 9/30/2004

Professor Troy writes, " More recently, 'spin alleys' have developed outside the debating halls, with both parties unleashing their respective attack dogs to feed the media beast and shape the 'postgame' show."

For those interested in spin, campaigning, and debates, David Gergen's book, _Eyewitness to History_, is well worth reading. Gergen helped perfect spin as a tool but expressed some regret in his book over how pervasive it has become. Some of his misgivings came through in this discussion about the 2000 presidential debates, with Gergen agreeing with Ben Bradlee' assessment that spinning has become a polite way of lying. I tend to agree with the implication in Kalb's question, below, that spinning has contributed to a sense of cynicism about politics.

Extract from

"GERGEN: I think the hardest part of this for me was how do you tell the truth without damaging your boss? And that's the hard, hard line to do.

And I sometimes -- I had to go out and defend Reagan about some things he'd said on the campaign trail. And his embellishments -- we talked about this earlier, well, the fact that trees create more pollution than cars and that sort of thing, it went on in the campaign.

And he wanted me to go look it up. And I found some of the stuff. And some of the stuff he was off on.

And so I had to go out there and explain to the press what had gone on. And I kept on trying to figure out how do I explain this without hurting him?

(CROSSTALK) GERGEN: That's what I did. You've got to do a little bit of spin. I said, "Look, these are more like parables. And they weren't intended to be stories that were absolutely accurate. Parables have been a part of literary storytelling for years."

KURTZ: Well, the Reagan press operation was extraordinarily successful. But did you feel at any time when you were put in that somewhat awkward position like your own credibility was at stake?

GERGEN: My greatest regret in public life is that during the Reagan years, I thought we were doing the right thing by pushing back against the press in order to let Reagan govern. You had to get 55, 60 percent support in this country to get the legislature to do anything.

And we ran a very aggressive press operation. But what I think that opened the door to was more and more spin in the press and more and more effort to concoct things to favor the boss.

KALB: And how has that affected the political culture of skepticism, cynicism, et cetera? As a practiced spinmeister, what are your contributions to this culture?

GERGEN: Well, I hate that term. I didn't feel I was a spinmeister.

KALB: As a practiced artist...

GERGEN: Yeah, but see the reason I hate that term, I think what that term connotes today is spin has become, as Ben Bradlee has said, a polite form of lying. And I think it's gotten really excessive.

I think that there has been an arms race on both sides by the press and by the people in government. So the press has become more and more invasive, less and less I think generous in the way it covers people.

And I think the people who work inside government have become more -- they've gotten engaged in more and more puffery. And they've gotten further and further from the truth.

And I think the spin has gotten completely out of control. And we ought to put it behind the door again."