Presidential debates: Memorable moments mingle truth and myth


U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden square off for the first of three scheduled debates Tuesday, an event sure to produce a number of sound bite moments.

In the 2016 debates with Hillary Clinton, Trump inspired memes with his “no puppet” denial of Russian influence, and his contention that “somebody sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds” could have been behind cyberattacks targeting Democrats has often been quoted.

Presidential debates, while often entertaining, are more importantly an opportunity for voters to get energized and learn about issues. But as far back as 1976, early in the history of televised presidential debates, an NBC News-Boston Globe poll indicated that just three per cent of those surveyed said the debates changed their vote.

Debates occur too late in the campaign to usually make a huge dent in the final election result, argues political science professor James Stimson. 

“There is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates,” writes Stimson in Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics. He contends that conventions are usually more consequential when it comes to moving polls than debates, based on looking at nearly 40 years of polling data.

First debates have proven a particularly poor election bellwether. The candidate deemed the winner of the first debate in Gallup surveys has gone on to win the presidency just four out of 12 times.

Which is not to say that debates don’t matter, just that their impact is hard to isolate. Television news coverage often grafts memorable debate moments onto retrospective packages of elections past, whether there was a real connection to the result or not. Here’s a closer look at some of those moments:

Lazy narrative

Moderator Howard K. Smith sits between Sen. John Kennedy, left, and then Vice-President Richard Nixon during the first televised presidential debate in Chicago on Sept. 26, 1960. (AP)

Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy looked tanned and youthful during the first televised presidential debates in 1960, while then Vice-President Richard Nixon, who ill-advisedly applied a product called Lazy Shave to cover up his five o’clock shadow, looked wan and sweaty.

It’s a great story, but according to political science professors Christopher Wlezien and Robert Erikson, Kennedy’s polling average at the beginning of the first debate was commensurate with the support he got in the election.

WATCH | Kennedy shines, Nixon flops in first televised debate: 

In the first televised U.S. presidential debate, RIchard Nixon and John F. Kennedy square off. 1:00

There’s also a repeated narrative that Nixon was the preferred choice of radio listeners of the debate. Joseph Campbell in Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism and academics such as David Vancil and Sue Pendell in 1987 detailed how much of that narrative was fuelled by anecdotal reports.

In the one known market research survey of self-identified radio listeners, it was not clear that the smallish sample was representative in terms of factors like geography or religious beliefs. Picking Lyndon Johnson from Texas as his running mate was probably more consequential for Kennedy.

For his part, Nixon chose not to debate Hubert Humphrey (1968) and George McGovern (1972). Whether he was scarred by the 1960 experience or saw debating as a no-win scenario given his lead in the polls is open to speculation.

Gaffe didn’t drive Ford down

U.S. President Gerald Ford and wife Betty celebrate after securing the Republican nomination in Kansas City on Aug. 19, 1976. (Karl Schumache/Gerald Ford Library/Reuters)

The defining TV moment from 1976 occurred when then President Gerald Ford insisted in the second debate on Oct. 6 that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”

A serious gaffe to journalists and policy wonks, but there’s no evidence in debate surveys that voters paid it much mind. Americans were dealing with a recession, high inflation, rising gas prices and some of the worst-ever U.S. crime rates — the fate of Poland and Hungary in the shadow of a world nuclear power probably didn’t loom large.

WATCH | Ford’s fumble on Soviet question: 

Furthermore, the Gallup poll of Sept. 30 showed Jimmy Carter enjoying an 11-point advantage in the polls, and by Oct. 12, six days after the Ford gaffe, it was just two points. The state of the race didn’t change drastically after a third debate.

Ford had trailed in one poll by 33 points in the summer, but Carter would then commit a few missteps and verbal miscues of his own on the campaign trail.

Ford lost the election by just 57 electoral college votes and two percentage points. His debate slip overshadowed the fact that he was within shouting distance of an incredible comeback.

One and done

Then President Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan shake hands in Cleveland before the only presidential debate of 1980. Reagan’s calm, relaxed demeanor during the debate was seen as key to his victory. (Bettmann Archive)

Legislative changes in the 1970s helped ensure regular presidential debates going forward, but negotiations between the principals were fraught in 1980. There was only one Carter-Ronald Reagan debate, held just a week before the election.

During the debate, the candidates differed in their responses to questions about the handling of the ongoing Iran hostage crisis. Carter also sought to paint the Republican’s positions as superficial and inconsistent, but his persistent needling at one point led a smiling Reagan to shrug, “there you go again.”

WATCH | Reagan’s relaxed one-liner:

A key moment from the 1980 U.S. presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. 0:53

The one-liner came to crystallize the former actor’s optimism and ease on camera.

Reagan then wrapped up his night by asking Americans: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

That conclusion was favoured 45-33 over Carter’s in one poll, with the Harris Poll showing that of the respondents who saw a clear debate winner, it was Reagan 44-26.

With little time left for Carter to bounce back before election day, the debate has been widely viewed by academics as impactful in widening what had been until then a close race. The drift toward Reagan continued, leading to a nine-percentage point and 440-electoral college vote win.

While Reagan projected strength in the debate, the issue of U.S. hostages in Iran was more nuanced than is commonly portrayed. As detailed in Rick Perlstein’s book Reaganland, the 17 per cent in exit polls who thought the hostages were the top issue reported voting for Carter by a 2-to-1 margin.

Did crime pay?

Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis speaks during the first presidential debate with opponent George H.W. Bush in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Sept. 25, 1988. Dukakis likely faced an insurmountable deficit by the time he was forced to answer a controversial question in the third debate that October. (Bob Jordan/The Associated Press)

Moderator Bernard Shaw didn’t waste time with softballs in the second and final 1988 debate, asking Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis off the top: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favour an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, answered in a manner consistent with his longstanding position that capital punishment was not a deterrent while highlighting his state’s declining rates of violent crime. But his answer was seen by reporters as clinical and dispassionate.

WATCH | Dukakis’ dispassionate answer: 

Dukakis later told frequent debate moderator Jim Lehrer that the issue had come up, “about a thousand times” in his political career. “Unfortunately, I answered it as if I’d been asked it a thousand times,” he said in Lehrer’s 2011 book Tension City.

In the retelling of that election, Dukakis’s answer along with a foreboding George H.W. Bush campaign ad about a Massachusetts prisoner who committed a violent sexual assault while on furlough have often loomed large.

But Bush was already up several points in the polls heading into the debates after trailing Dukakis early in the summer.

WATCH | George H.W. Bush’s attack ad: 

Meanwhile, the ad was not widely seen and was amplified by news coverage largely after Bush took his polling lead, writes George Washington University professor John Sides.

In election exit polls, Bush was the overwhelming choice of voters on all economic questions. The capital punishment answer didn’t do Dukakis any favours, but he was likely dealing with an insurmountable deficit.

Sighs of the times

George W. Bush, left, and Al Gore, get animated during the third debate in 2000, a town hall in St. Louis. The assessment of Gore’s performance in the first debate may have been affected by subsequent media coverage. (Jeff Mitchell/Reuters)

The liberal use of a split screen effect in the first presidential debate of 2000 meant viewers got a full complement of Al Gore’s sighs and eye rolls as he grew exasperated with George W. Bush’s answers.

“We had to try to laugh about it. But really, it hurt us,” said Gore adviser Tad Devine in a 2016 New York Times oral history of the debate entitled Debacle.

A funny thing about that, though. Two polls in the hours after the debate had Gore winning above and beyond the margin of error, with a third poll essentially even. Despite this, it’s become accepted conventional wisdom among pundits that the performance hurt Gore. 

Political scientists D. Sunshine Hillygus and Simon Jackman posited that political realities can be mediated, whether through television pundits or, now, on social media.

“… debate watchers believed Gore won the first and third debate, but the individuals not watching the debates increasingly believed that Bush won those debates — perhaps in response to media interpretations of Gore’s smirks and sighs,” the academics said.

In any event, ascribing Gore’s Supreme Court-contested election loss to the first debate, or even the debates overall, is a tricky business, given that he won the popular vote by 500,000.

Romney puts Obama on the ropes

Then President Barack Obama, left, and Republican nominee Mitt Romney share a moment at the end of the first presidential debate in Denver, Colo., on Oct. 4, 2012, but the incumbent wasn’t laughing at the campaign polls that followed. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

The first 2012 presidential debate proved the most impactful despite lacking a signature moment on the order of Mitt Romney’s inartful, meme-inspiring “binders full of women” in the second debate, or when Barack Obama mocked Romney in the third debate for earlier declaring Russia was the “No. 1 geopolitical foe” of the U.S.

Obama had held a lead in nearly ever poll since June, but White House adviser David Axelrod didn’t feel secure.

“We were always worried about the first debate because it historically is a killing field for presidents,” Axelrod wrote in 2015’s Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, citing a common reluctance of busy presidents to take time out for debate prep.

WATCH | Obama feels the heat in first debate: 

Barack Obama faces added pressure in his rematch with Mitt Romney after the U.S. president’s first debate performance dispirited Democrats and sparked a surge in support for the former Massachusetts governor 5:26

Obama indeed came out flat after the first debate in the eyes of pundits, his team and viewers. Polls had Romney clearly winning.

“It wasn’t one of those classic debate gaffes: Richard Nixon mopping his sweaty brow; Michael Dukakis’s robotic response,” but it was clearly noticeable, wrote CNN’s Maeve Reston, capturing the consensus view.

Election polls soon swung dramatically in Romney’s favour, but Obama bounced back in the next two debates, where he was seen as more comfortable.

“Of course, the [first] debate did not change the outcome. … But it really did matter in that it changed the dynamics of the rest of the contest,” wrote Stimson. “Had Obama not improved in the second and third debates, defeat would have been a likely outcome.”

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