Do presidential debates actually matter?
Is the first debate typically the most important?
That’s the simple conclusion one reaches when reviewing the history and impact of the first presidential debates in each election cycle. These events often have a lasting effect on how we view these candidates both in the moment and in hindsight. They also tend to affect how these candidates fare in the polls and at the ballot box.
The first Kennedy-Nixon debate is perhaps the most mythologized political event of the 20th century. The tale of a tanned, rested and ready Kennedy outshining a pale and sweaty Nixon feels like a fable, but there’s plenty of truth to it.
Morning-after reactions generally depicted Kennedy as the winner. Moreover, image seems to have been a major factor in that impression. As one League of Women Voters member quipped to the New York Times, “I resent the fact that Nixon has lost his jowls and Kennedy seems to have picked them up.”
Kennedy emerged with a small yet significant bump in the polls. Nixon may have walked onto that sound stage with the lead, but a few days later Gallup found that Kennedy had turned a 47% to 46% deficit into a 49% to 46% advantage. Despite the fact that there were three more debates, and Nixon is commonly considered to have won those, Kennedy never surrendered that lead. This episode cemented the view that politics is a visual medium and debates are their perfect showcase.
From one of the most memorable debates of all-time to one of the least memorable. To the extent that anyone remembers this confrontation, it’s probably because of a technical problem. 81 minutes into the 90-minute scheduled debate between President Ford and Jimmy Carter the audio suddenly cut out. As a result, the men were left standing in silence for 27 agonizing minutes as technicians frantically tried to fix the problem.
According to Jules Witcover’s 1976 chronicle “Marathon”, the Carter team felt their candidate was gaining steam as the event went along and that the interruption robbed him of a late-momentum victory. Instead the consensus view formed that the contest was a draw, so Carter was unable to end his downward slide in the polls. The Georgian would have to wait until the second debate for Ford to help him in that regard.
Kennedy-Nixon might be more famous, Lincoln-Douglas might be more significant but Regan-Carter was likely the most impactful. Circumstances made this so, as this was the sole show-down between the two candidates and it occurred just a week before Election Day (Carter was holding out to prevent the inclusion of Independent John Anderson).
Over that final week, President Carter would see a small lead evaporate and turn into a nearly double-digit loss. Yet it wasn’t immediately apparent that Reagan had scored such a triumph. Journalists felt it was a draw, while an initial poll showed just a 44-36 plurality believed Reagan won. In fact, the most indicative numbers came from an unscientific survey which found two out of three respondents believed Reagan got the most out of the battle.
Reagan would take the lead in the final Gallup poll, and in their election preview CBS noted that the challenger had the momentum. By the night after, Dan Rather was citing Reagan’s debate performance as a key to his victory. Never again would a candidate make the mistake of doing just one debate or agree to holding it so close to Election Day.
While the sole 1980 debate proved to be crucial, it did not create a trend that extended to 1984. With Reagan holding a gigantic lead, Walter Mondale came out swinging in the hopes that a debate victory would give his campaign the shot in the arm it needed. While Mondale got the win, he didn’t get the polling boost he was hoping for.
Mondale’s energy contrasted with Reagan’s “less confident” and “tentative” performance. Reagan’s appearance sparked a whole news cycle about the President’s age and whether he was still up to the demands of the job. The common narrative is that Reagan put these concerns, and the election, to bed with his famous retort at the next debate. In reality, though, his standing never took much of a hit in the first place. In that way, the first presidential debate of 1984 was the exception that proves the rule.
This is another classic example of “not the one you remember, the other one” as the Kitty Dukakis question came in the second debate. As their first encounter took place, George H.W. Bush was still riding high off his summer comeback and was in possession of a 46% to 40% lead. So Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis needed to arrest his slide and, when you dig into the results, it appears he did.
Much of the initial commentary focused on the antagonistic exchanges between the nominees and there was a split verdict on who the public saw as the winner. For example, CBS respondents gave it to Bush by three points while Gallup had Dukakis by one point. A telling Newsweek survey found that people thought Dukakis performed better, yet they felt closer to Bush on the issues.
A week later, CBS showed Bush’s advantage dropping to just two points, while Gallup saw Dukakis’ deficit go from eight to five. Although it didn’t last, for a brief moment Dukakis had hope again.
This was an unique election cycle as it established the present format of three presidential debates (including one town hall) and a single vice presidential debate. All four were packed within an eight-day period, so it’s difficult to discern the consequences of just one such event. Nonetheless, it appears that the first presidential debate to feature an independent candidate was also the first presidential won by an independent candidate.
The impression that Ross Perot was the main obstacle in the way of George H.W. Bush’s re-election likely stems at least partly from these debates, as the Texan drew the most attention and teamed-up with Bill Clinton to hammer the incumbent.
That dynamic was reflected in the polls that came out afterward which showed Perot and Clinton gaining while Bush remained stuck in second. Later on, Bush would narrow this deficit until Caspar Weinberger’s Iran-Contra notes spiked any potential comeback.
Typically regarded as the dullest election of our times, this debate was able to live up (or down) to that moniker. Bob Dole desperately wanted to convince America that a change was needed but a strong economy and relatively few national crises produced a mostly content electorate.
That’s why it was surprising to find a Gallup tracking poll which actually reveals a slight tightening after the debate. It disappeared a few days later, however, and may have just been noise. To the degree this debate is remembered at all, it’s because this was one of the rare times an incumbent was seen to have held his own on his first attempt. We’ve already reviewed what happened to Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; suffice to say there’s more of that to come.
The opening debate of the 2000 election was another prime example of how style can trump substance. Initially, it was considered by the press to be an uneventful draw and a flash CBS News poll even showed Gore widening his lead. By the next night, though, there was discussion about the Democrat’s habit of sighing and rolling his eyes while his opponent was speaking. The GOP capitalized by compiling an audio reel of those sighs for use by right-wing radio. By the time that year’s Saturday Night Live parody of the debate aired, this view of Gore as haughty and condescending had taken hold in the public’s imagination.
As a result, Bush made persistent gains throughout the month of October and moved ahead. Eventually the late revelation of his DUI arrest would set the stage for the infamously close and contested result that followed. Once again, and not for the last time, a debate’s legacy rested on cosmetics.
Speaking of which, George W. Bush realized this the hard way as he went through his own experience with the Incumbent’s Curse. Coming into the fall Bush was enjoying his best stretch of the campaign, only to be hit by a reality check on debate night. While Democratic nominee John Kerry conducted himself well, the President was frequently caught in a split-screen making incredulous faces.
Bush was ridiculed not only on TV and in print, but now on the World Wide Web as well. An apparent bulge on his back sparked the first debate-themed conspiracy theories, ranging from a radio hookup to a defibrillator. Altogether, the viewing public was impressed enough by Kerry that he began to rapidly close the gap with Bush. Kerry carried that success through the other two debates but was ultimately unable to overtake the incumbent, falling one buckeye state short.
For purposes of this article, 2008 was a watershed year. Now TV networks were finally employing instant polls that could render a public verdict just minutes after the debate’s conclusion. Thanks to this innovation, we can state pretty definitely that Barack Obama was the unanimous winner this time. For instance, CNN showed 51% of viewers believed Obama won compared to 38% for John McCain, while CBS found a 40% to 22% split.
At the time, the debates were a major proving ground for the then-untested challenger. It was an exceptionally turbulent period, as the economy was crattering and McCain was trying to postpone the event. The public didn’t even know until the morning of the debate if the Republican nominee would show. In the end, Obama continued to notch debate victories, to rise in the polls, and to finish with the largest electoral majority of the 21st century.
Barack Obama ended up 5-1 in presidential debates. This was the one. In an incredible confluence of events, the first 2012 debate was nearly an exact repeat of the 2004 competition. Once more, the incumbent enjoyed a healthy lead that was nearly erased by a poor first debate performance.
Optics, yet again, were the main culprit as President Obama displayed a demeanor that managed somehow to convey both disinterest and irritation. Take this dynamic and add a new ingredient, Twitter, to the mix and the result was a liberal meltdown of epic proportions.
The reaction surveys were brutal, with 67% of CNN respondents thinking Romney won while Gallup found that 72% of viewers gave it to the challenger. As perception became reality, Romney began to rise in the long interim until the second debate. In another nod to 2004, the incumbent was able to steady the ship and win re-election, but not before adding a notable chapter to this history.
Finally, we have reached the race that felt like the election to end all elections. The match-up between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump capitatived the nation, leading to the highest-rated presidential debate in history (surpassing the 1980 Carter/Reagan face-off).
Coming off a tough September that included an actual battle with pneumonia, Clinton excelled in the first debate and used it as a jumping off point to get back out to a solid lead in the horse race. Despite Trump’s objections, Hillary was judged the winner by CNN (62% Clinton 27% Trump) and Gallup (61% Clinton 27% Trump) among others. Debates were a strength for Clinton and she was widely judged to have won all three. Of course, for various reasons, they weren’t enough to carry her to the White House.
So what did we learn? In short, the first presidential debate definitely shapes the race. It’s absolutely a contest worth winning, and while losing isn’t deadly, it is still to be avoided at all costs.