Are Presidential Debates Game Changers?

Are Presidential Debates Game Changers?

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

The conventional verdict on presidential debates is that they only rarely change history. Typically, they’re low key affairs—two candidates in dark suits and red ties standing on stage at their respective podiums spouting back carefully rehearsed talking points. The candidates seek to avoid mistakes and traps. They often avoid answering the actual question, and in many cases they respond instead to something that wasn’t even asked, a cagey sidestep known in political jargon as a pivot. In short, they generally play conservative football.

The media build-up creates a strange expectations game in which the combatants extoll the virtues and skills of their opponent and downplay their own chances. Risk averse, they do not want to wake up the next morning to a world of frenzied newspaper and TV reporters obsessing over their misplacement of Poland, their pronunciation of Ahmadinejad or their hapless self-comparison to John F. Kennedy.

In 2004, along with three other friends, I watched a debate between President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger John Kerry on television. It was a much-anticipated match-up hyped in the media for what was expected to be a wildly asymmetrical contest noted for sparks and even fireworks. Instead it was the cure for insomnia. After only 45 minutes two people in the room were asleep on my sofa and another had wandered three times to the kitchen.

But despite the 90 minutes of boredom, one-on-one debates can be game-changers nevertheless, and have sometimes been decisive in redirecting momentum or changing the larger narrative. Going into the debates in 1960 Richard Nixon was widely viewed as the favorite, even by many Democrats. Reporters and analysts expected Nixon’s broad experience and formidable political skill to win the day. But afterward, Kennedy’s poise and charisma led most to conclude that the young Senator from Massachusetts had won, and decisively so, especially in the context of the still new medium of television (though Nixon was rated the “winner” by those who listened on radio).

Neither man had made a mistake per se, but voters who called themselves undecided had an opportunity to re-evaluate any reservations about Kennedy, who was being called inexperienced by Republicans. Historically, the Nixon-Kennedy debates were seen as having shifted the energy from Nixon to Kennedy.

In 1976, coming out of the GOP convention in Kansas City, the Ford-Dole ticket was deep in a hole, lagging nearly 30% behind Jimmy Carter in some polls. Carter, riding on the crest of a wave of anti-Watergate sentiment and campaigning largely on the theme of honesty, had all the odds in his favor. But in the debates many Americans concluded that President Gerald Ford, despite his occasional stumbles and gaffes, had nevertheless earned their trust—the only non-elected chief executive in U.S. history—and that he should be rewarded with a term of his own. In the final weeks and days, the polling gap closed dramatically. Carter would still win, but his comfortable margin was erased and his goal of an electoral mandate largely denied.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan altered the expectations template. By the summer and fall of that year President Carter’s approval ratings were extremely low: the economy was still mired deeply in recession, unemployment remained stubbornly high, gas prices were climbing again, and internationally the United States was at one of its lowest ebbs. American diplomats and Foreign Service employees held hostage by radical students in Tehran had become painful symbols of the level of disrespect, and had served in part as a constant enabler of the “malaise” felt at home.

Still, many Americans were uncertain of Reagan. Most Democrats and a fair share of otherwise objective reporters viewed the former California governor with derision and suspicion—a shallow, reactionary shoot-from-the-hip buckaroo capable of nearly anything, from the wholesale destruction of Social Security to the triggering of a nuclear war. Americans may have had their doubts about Carter, but their uneasy apprehensions about Reagan seemed to trump their queasiness about four more years with Carter.

To make matters worse for Carter, the President and his top advisors spoke of Reagan with derisive sarcasm. The former California governor, in the view of the Carter team, was an empty suit and hollow thinker—a patent lightweight. This was, of course, a colossal misjudgment. Reagan was never someone to underestimate, for he had already proven his debate mettle. In 1962, California Governor Pat Brown, a titan of the party (and the man who had trounced Richard Nixon in 1962), faced what everyone believed would be an easy re-election campaign, but instead had been crushed by Reagan by one million votes—a response due largely to Reagan’s sterling debate performance against the more seasoned Brown.

Carter had famously avoided earlier debates in 1980 with his Democratic challengers Ted Kennedy and Jerry Brown, but by the time of the close of the conventions this hand had been played out. (At a press conference Brown and Kennedy once “debated” tape recordings of Carter’s own voice). Still, despite the media criticism, Carter dodged one more debate—this one in Baltimore, a match-up in which Reagan met independent candidate John Anderson. Originally the event’s sponsor, the League of Women Voters, had agreed to set up an “empty chair” for the missing Carter, but at the last minute became squeamish of the stunt staging and removed the third chair. Despite ABC’s refusal to air the event, CBS and NBC together drew extremely high ratings. Many people had tuned in, despite Carter’s absence, to size up Reagan. Afterwards, press reaction was favorable and polls showed Reagan had gained in stature.

Still, despite dissatisfaction with President Carter in 1980, many voters were still unsure of Reagan. The final debates changed things. A central canon of debate logic is that challengers have the chance to look presidential by sharing the stage with an incumbent, and indeed Reagan used the opportunity to do just that. Reagan effectively diffused and invalidated the most conspicuous misjudgments and distortions, and in the process leveled the playing field between himself and Carter. Reagan was easy-going, calm and charming, and he had his facts more-or-less in order. Still, the percentage of those who called themselves undecided remained stubbornly high.

Despite the otherwise slow pace and fair-to-middling tenor of the final debate, it became one of those rare cases where a single moment changes the outcome of an election. In his closing remarks Reagan asked that now famous question to voters: are you better off than you were four years ago?

It was unfortunate timing for Carter that the debate should have been so close to Election Day, for the effect was decisive and the shift in momentum insurmountable.

By the mid-1980s, presidential and vice-president debate were watched by reporters more closely for their zingers, those sound bites that draw the most applause or laughter, or those vignettes which most easily fit into the taped highlights the next day. In 1988 vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle, in an otherwise ho-hum debate, tossed a fat pitch across the plate for Lloyd Bentsen when he compared himself to JFK. Bentsen’s retort was perfectly timed and devastating, and left a lasting impression of Quayle—already under pressure for his lightweight skills—as someone unprepared for the Presidency.

That same year, the debates between President George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis were not game-changers, but there were telling moments, as well as missed opportunities. In their final debate on the campus of UCLA, an opening question to Dukakis from CNN’s Bernard Shaw raised the issue of crime, punishment and the death penalty by posing the hypothetical rape and murder of Dukakis’ wife. Instead of expressing a human form of outrage or passion, or perhaps framing his answer around the understandable emotional complexity one would feel in the face of such horror—even as a liberal with a sound record of opposition to capital punishment—Dukakis famously invoked the language of the courtroom, giving a cagey, cold, insincere dissertation on the justice system and the burden of proof, failing even to mention the name of his wife, Kitty.

But things got worse, and during the 90 minute debate Dukakis missed still other opportunities to show himself as human. Though many American voters had been reluctant to deliver wholehearted support to vice president Bush, their remaining uncertainties about Dukakis could have been erased that very night—just as Reagan as assured voters and assuaged their fears eight years before. Despite the relatively level playing field at that moment, Dukakis’s cold performance and detached, passionless delivery made the choice easy for many of those who had watched the debate, and in the days that followed polls showed a substantial shift of support toward Bush.

Bill Clinton refused to make the same mistakes as some of his Democratic predecessors, and in his 1992 debates with fellow Democrats he proved his ability to connect effectively with voters. Later, in his three-way debates with George H.W. Bush and Reform candidate Ross Perot, Clinton often scored well with viewers by deploying his legendary skill at making his words emotionally or personally resonant with voters. President Bush famously glanced at his wristwatch several times when it was Perot’s turn to talk.

One of the surprising things to watch in the long run-up to the first primaries and caucuses in 2008 was then-candidate Barack Obama’s ability to adapt to the venue of debates. In his first appearances on the stage with front-runner Hillary Clinton and other Democrats—including veteran debater John Edwards and the established politicians such as Chris Dodd and Joe Biden—Obama was hesitant and sometimes halting. Later, as the field quickly narrowed to a top-tier of only three, it was clear that the Senator Obama was effectively raising his game. Obama solidified his reputation as someone slow to anger, as well as a debater who took extreme care with his words. In fact, what his Democratic opponents saw as a chilliness reminiscent of Dukakis’s detached style, may have been the one trait which served him best in those notable contrasts between himself and Hillary Clinton, whose frequent anger sometimes boiled just beneath the surface of her otherwise hardened exterior. By the time Obama met John McCain head-on, it was clear that the future president had sharpened his debate skills to the highest level. McCain did well in the town-hall format, but Obama clearly had the upper hand throughout.

When Mitt Romney finally meets President Obama for their first direct match-up this week in Denver, the competition will be highly symmetrical. Romney too is an effective, seasoned debater. In his 1994 run for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, Romney proved his mettle against a seemingly unprepared and over-confident Ted Kennedy. Romney was cool, patient, and prepared with the facts. Though in the end Kennedy would win the election by a fair margin, the damage to the political reputation of the Lion of the Senate was severe, and Mitt Romney’s reputation had been established. In 2008, through a dozen major debates, Romney outlasted a crowded field of competitors which included Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul and others, and succumbed only after John McCain had solidified his lead after Super Tuesday.

Between the summer of 2007 and early this year Romney made appearances at all the major GOP debates, nearly 30 total forums, depending on how one counts them, and in each case he emerged stronger than the previous. By adding those two election cycles together, Romney may have participated in more nationally televised presidential debates than any American in history, and the Obama strategists have no intention of taking Romney for granted, nor of underestimating his skill, as Carter once underestimated Reagan.

For Romney, this week’s debate at the University of Denver will be an opportunity to put his campaign back on track and re-energize his message, and that means he will seek to stress the economy wherever possible. President Obama will seek to divert the debate narrative toward social issues—those talking points most likely to distract from the simplest of debate questions: are you better off than you were four years ago?

Hopefully, with the election just over one month away, both candidates will be able to provide a compelling reason for Americans to give that question some serious thought.

Related Thursday Review articles:

"Are We Ready for the Debates?” September 18, 2012.

Romney: Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?” August 31, 2012.