Presidential debates: an uncommon but potential game-changer

On Wednesday, President Obama and Mitt Romney will meet for the first debate in the presidential election that Obama currently leads.

Since the Democratic National Convention, Obama has built decent leads and polling gurus now universally call the election a likely victory for Obama. For Mitt Romney, the debates are pretty much do-or-die.

However, it should be noted that debates often don’t change much. Although they have a very large audience, debates so often show little movement in polling. Indeed, many of the most memorable debate moments — Gerald Ford’s Poland gaffe, Michael Dukakis’ almost robotic response to his wife’s hypothetical murder, Lloyd Bentson pwning  Dan Quayle, George H. W. Bush checking his watch like he just wants to go home, Al Gore sighing and otherwise reacting smugly to George W. Bush’s arguments, and Barack Obama whipping an accusation of a small business tax increase back at John Mccain’s face like a wet towel — only really moved the polls a point or two. Not enough to save Romney.

And yet, it can be done.  Sometimes a candidate will win a debate handily enough to change the nature of the election. Here are the times this has happened.

 1960: Kennedy vs. Nixon.

Easily the most famous presidential debates ever. Every four years around this time, the networks show clips of them. Richard Nixon, of course, stammered and sweated. The majority of those who caught the debates on the radio thought Nixon had won, but a huge TV audience thought different.

Actually, there was little change in poll results, but in one of the closest elections ever, it was likely necessary to put John F. Kennedy over the top.

1976: Carter vs. Ford.

Perception really is reality. It’s generally assumed that the debates were all good for Jimmy Carter. In reality, the stench of Watergate and some really humiliating PR fumbles left Gerald Ford a doomed man. A near-miss in the primaries from Ronald Reagan that drained both popularity and financial resources from Ford was only the latest problem. I’ve always been of the mind that a primary challenge is third in importance behind the economic/international situation and the quality of the candidates if it occurs. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t make a bad situation worse.

In the first debate, Ford used his usual talking point that Carter was an empty suit whose message was nothing tangible whatsoever, only hollow promises of honesty and integrity. This time it worked. After the first debate, Carter’s 20-point lead was wiped out. Ford’s aforementioned gaffe in the second debate* did deny him a full term, but the election was far closer than it might have been.

For all the comparisons to Reagan-Carter, I think Carter-Ford is more relevant to 2012. Ford may have lost, but he made up a lot more ground in debates than Romney needs to.

*I  originally stated in this article that Ford made this mistake in the third debate, not the second. Sorry! This error has been corrected.

1980: Reagan vs. Carter.

Two candidates respectfully shake hands before vilifying one another.

This was the moment Ronald Reagan sealed the deal after he ascended to the nomination. His performance in the debate (the only one) actually didn’t get universally positive reviews, but Reagan got a chance to challenge the allegation that he was a dangerous, racist, sexist, poor-starving, right-wing extremist that had led to low favorability ratings (he got more popular as President) and the erosion of a huge summertime lead. And with charm and humor he did exactly that.

Still, I’m rather doubtful that this is a good model for Romney. First of all, Reagan wasn’t really behind in September and October (source: the New Republic’s Nate Cohn).

As you can see, Carter’s attacks trimmed, not eliminated, Reagan’s lead. You can argue that Reagan’s ambitious defense, tax, and austerity plans hinged on the landslide and massive congressional gains that probably required victory in debate, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

Second, once you strip away the mythology, Reagan’s debate success is revealed to be more a matter of personality than anything. Will anyone seriously argue that Romney is more fun to listen to than Obama (I know, cheap shot)?

Most importantly, Obama is simply not in the same place as Carter was. His approval rating averages well over 10 points north of Carter’s in fall ’80. He is not Jimmy Carter, no matter how much his detractors want him to be.

2004: Bush vs. Kerry.

“Romney is John Kerry” is a line Romney obviously doesn’t want to hear, but perhaps this is an exception. Kerry if anything polled stronger than Bush in the spring and summer and was generally seen as the odds-on favorite. A big convention boost for Bush changed that and it didn’t entirely recede. So it was that Kerry schooled Bush in debates. Especially the first one. Kerry seemed decisive, strong, and smart and Bush dumb, slow on the take, and weak. It was anyone’s race and though Kerry lost, it was close.

That said, it should be noted that Bush’s performances were pathetically weak. That’s something you should never depend on.

Looking ahead.

It’s a bit telling that the only two  particularly hopeful examples for Romney are Ford and Kerry, two candidates who lost. The truth of the matter is that Romney needs to show more ability as a candidate than he’s shown so far. Can he do it?

We won’t have to wait long. The first debate is domestic policy. Since 8% unemployment is pretty much the only thing keeping Romney in the game, that’s his element. If he can’t win here, it’s hard to envision a scenerio where he becomes President.


One thought on “Presidential debates: an uncommon but potential game-changer

  1. Mashed Potato Bulletin

    What a great piece. Nicely researched with a great historical perspective bringing it back to this elections debate.
    I think Romney may do okay when speaking about the economy, speaking intelligently about it but that doesn’t necessarily mean people will like what he says about it. I think it will hurt him if he sticks with the same criticisms of Obama’s economic “failings” because Obama will come right back and debunk many of those claims.

    Romney’s real concern will be the thrid and final debate on foreign policy. Obama is much more adept on this topic than Romney and this will be the last significant remembrance the national audience will have of Mitt. That may not be a great ending for Romney right before the elections.


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