Friday, April 20 , 2018, 8:08 pm | Fair 59º

 
 
 
 

Michael Barone: Quips, Slips and Gaffes in Presidential Debates

Do debates make a difference? Perhaps decades ago, but recent evidence seems more nuanced

Mitt Romney was 13 years old and President Barack Obama had not been born when an energetic-looking John Kennedy, 43, and a tired-looking Richard Nixon, 47, walked into the WBBM-TV studio in Chicago for the first general election debate between presidential candidates.

It is generally held that television viewers felt Kennedy won the first debate, while those listening on radio, unaware of Nixon’s improvised makeup, felt Nixon won.

That’s probably overstated. Contemporary accounts suggest most viewers felt both candidates did well, while the single poll of radio listeners had a small sample possibly tilted toward pro-Nixon rural areas lacking TV reception.

There were three more Nixon-Kennedy debates that year and then no more until 1976. Since then, there have been 23 presidential debates and eight vice presidential debates, with three more presidentials this year, including last night’s, and one more vice presidential.

Nixon and Kennedy debated in 1960 because they were running even in the polls and each thought he could benefit. They had offsetting advantages: Nixon was vice president in the popular Eisenhower administration, while Kennedy was the nominee of the party favored by most voters.

They each had a disadvantage, as well, as relatively young men in a nation whose presidents over the preceding 18 years had been in their 60s or 70s.

The frontrunners over the next 16 years saw no percentage in debating their opponents. In 1964 and 1972, Lyndon Johnson and Nixon were overwhelming favorites and didn’t want to give their opponents equal standing on a television set. And 1968 was a three-way race, in which Nixon initially led, but neither he nor Hubert Humphrey wanted to share the stage with the shrewd segregationist demagogue George Wallace.

In 1976, things were different. The incumbent president, Gerald Ford, was far behind in polls and Democrats had a 2-to-1 lead in party identification. He could hope that his superior knowledge would shine against a former one-term governor of Georgia.

As for Jimmy Carter, he was still a relative unknown who needed to prove his gravitas. And he had great confidence in his debating abilities.

Ironically, it was Ford’s blooper in the second of their three debates — he denied there was “Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” — that may have cost him the election.

Other debate gaffes have become famous over the years: Carter citing his 13-year-old daughter’s concern about nuclear proliferation in 1980; Dan Quayle comparing himself with Kennedy in 1988; Al Gore’s loud sighs and menacing body language in 2000.

Less well remembered were the steady performances by the two female VP nominees, Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008, neither of whom had much national political experience.

Well remembered are President Ronald Reagan’s quips. “There you go again!” he said good-naturedly when he was attacked by Carter in 1980. And in 1984, when asked about his age, he casually replied, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” It worked because Walter Mondale was plainly mature and experienced.

That was when debates became institutionalized. Reagan, though far ahead in the polls, felt obliged to debate. In 1987, a presidential debates commission, chaired by former national party chairmen, was created. It’s been setting the rules, subject to approval by the candidates, ever since.

Do debates make a difference? Maybe in 1960, maybe when Ford tripped up on Eastern Europe, maybe when Reagan asked if voters were better off than they were four years before.

Recent evidence seems more nuanced. Gallup polls before and after debates tell us that Bill Clinton lost ground in the 1992 debate period and gained some in 1996. George W. Bush picked up support in the 2000 debate period but slipped in 2004.

Obama gained some ground during the 2008 debates, but it’s not clear they had anything to do with his rise. They took place when the nation was passing through the financial crisis and John McCain’s candidacy was spinning dizzily downward.

One reason debates matter, perhaps more than they once did, is that they are one of the few political events with a bipartisan audience.

This year’s debates give Romney, narrowly behind in polls, a chance to make a case against Obama and for his own policies. We’ll see what he makes of it.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. Click here to contact him. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelBarone.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.


Maestro, Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover, Debit

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >