Sixty years ago this Saturday, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon made political history with the first nationally televised presidential debate, a clash most analysts believe led to Kennedy’s narrow victory six weeks later.
In 1980, the sole debate between the major party candidates was crucial in fueling Ronald Reagan’s decisive victory over President Jimmy Carter.
But an important cautionary note as Joe Biden prepares to meet President Donald Trump Tuesday in Cleveland: Most of the general election debates that have occurred every four years since 1976 have proven less consequential, though some affected the ultimate outcome. This year, only three in 10 voters expect the debates to be important in influencing their decisions, according to the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.
Having watched all of the three dozen debates in those 11 campaigns, my conclusion is there was no single pattern and, in many instances, little correlation between initial debate judgments and the election result.
In two elections — the 2004 contest between President George W. Bush and John Kerry and the 2016 election between Trump and Hillary Clinton — the candidate who won all of the post-debate polls lost the election.
The most decisive encounters were that first 1960 debate in Chicago, after which Kennedy reversed Nixon’s earlier lead in the polls, and the 1980 Reagan-Carter debate in Cleveland, which took place just one week before the election and clearly shaped Reagan’s triumph.
In at least four other instances, something candidates said or did during the debate contributed to their defeat: President Gerald Ford’s 1976 statement that Communist Poland was not under Soviet domination, Michael Dukakis’ dispassionate 1988 response to a death penalty question that invoked his wife, President George Bush’s bored look at his watch during a 1992 town hall, and Al Gore’s eye rolling and audible groans in the initial 2000 debate.
In two other instances, heavily favored incumbent presidents — Reagan in 1984 and Barack Obama in 2012 — needed strong second debate rebounds to rescue their candidacies after showing unexpected weaknesses the first time.
Here are some other observations:
The first debate isn’t necessarily decisive. In 1976, Carter did poorly against Ford in their initial encounter, losing most of his big predebate polling lead. In 1984, Reagan’s meandering closing statement renewed doubts about his age, which he resolved humorously in the second debate (he was 73 at the time, younger than either Biden or Trump). And in 2012, Obama gave an unexpectedly lackluster initial performance against Mitt Romney, the result of overconfidence which he dispelled in their next encounter. Carter, Reagan and Obama all won.
Memorable moments get replayed, increasing their impact. Perhaps the best example is Reagan’s epic closer against Carter in 1980; he said voters should ask themselves, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” That highly effective line encapsulated Reagan’s main argument.
In 1976, Ford exacerbated the damage from his statement about Poland by repeating it a day later and taking several days to clean up the mess. In 1992, pictures of Bush looking at his watch dogged him for days after the debate. The post-debate impact is even more likely to be a factor in the 24-hour cable news era.
Beware of post-debate polls. There is some evidence the debate audience doesn’t necessarily reflect the electorate. As noted, polls after all three presidential debates in 2004 showed Kerry the winner over President Bush, but he narrowly lost the election. By 2016, the plethora of post-debate polls gave victories to Hillary Clinton in all three, though Trump actually was the dominant figure in their encounters and won the election.
Vice presidential debates don’t matter. That’s true though they have provided some of the most memorable TV moments.
Perhaps most famous was the 1988 exchange between Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle, the Republican nominee, and his Democratic rival, Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. The latter challenged Quayle for comparing himself to President Kennedy by saying, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” There is no evidence it impacted the election, in which the elder George Bush defeated Dukakis.
“Hey, can I call you Joe,” Republican nominee Gov. Sarah Palin greeted then Sen. Biden, her Democrat rival in 2008. It set the tone for her unexpectedly strong performance but had no impact on the result.
In 1976, Republican nominee Sen. Bob Dole drew a sharp response from his Democratic rival, Sen. Walter Mondale, when he declared that 1.6 million Americans had been killed in “Democrat wars,” a category including both World Wars, the Korean conflict and Vietnam, since all began during Democratic presidencies. Dole “has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight,” Mondale replied.
And perhaps most memorably of all, the way Adm. James Stockdale — independent candidate Ross Perot’s 1992 little-known running mate — introduced himself, asking, “Who am I? Why am I here?” It drew laughs but had no political effect.
Tuesday’s Trump-Biden debate will undoubtedly have its memorable moments. Whether or not they will matter politically is another question.