Will The Debates Determine The Outcome? History Says It's Debatable

The candidates have gone through the primaries and caucuses, the delegate counts and the conventions. At this point, they're traveling the country, trying to make their case. Now comes the most widely anticipated event in the race for the White House: the presidential debates.

Perhaps 60 million people are expected to tune in to the first one Wednesday at the University of Denver. The campaigns of both President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney acknowledge that the debates could make a huge difference in determining the winner.

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In the past, whether the race was thought to be close — as it was with George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000 — or seemingly en route to a blow out — as it was in 1984 with Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale — there was agreement on both sides that the debates could very well settle this thing once and for all.

And sometimes they do, especially when there's one galvanizing moment — or a candidate who exceeds expectations.

Consider President Gerald Ford's 1976 line about Soviet domination in Eastern Europe that seemed to halt his momentum in its tracks. Or a close election in 1980 that turned into a landslide following Reagan's debate performance against President Jimmy Carter. Both debates were cited as reasons why the election results turned out the way they did.

Even when they don't determine the outcome – and history shows that is usually the case — there are moments that stick with us, that remind us how potent these events are. Al Gore's sigh. George H.W. Bush looking at his watch. Admiral James Stockdale seemingly not knowing who or where he was.

Here is a brief look at the presidential debates, beginning in 1960, and how they did (or did not) affect the election.

1960: If there was a perceived "stature gap" between Sen. John Kennedy, the young challenger, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, it disappeared with the debates. They allowed Kennedy to make sure his religion and youth would not disqualify him in the eyes of voters. What viewers saw in the four debates was a cool, confident Kennedy, someone who understood the power of television, compared with Nixon, who showed up exhausted and ill, who focused on briefing books and less on appearance. The race was close before the debates, and ended even closer. But the debates helped Kennedy erase the experience gap, and they were cited as a key reason for his victory. (As for the widely reported thesis that Kennedy clearly won with those watching on television but Nixon won with those listening on the radio, Northeastern University Professor Alan Schroeder, in his masterful Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV, debunks that. Or, at least, the methodology used to come to that conclusion, limited and unscientific, reflected the "casual approach the news media of 1960 took toward the audience reaction story.") In any event, Nixon refused to debate his Democratic opponent in both 1968 and 1972.

Ford's debate gaffe is thought to be one reason he lost to Carter in 1976.

hide captionFord's debate gaffe is thought to be one reason he lost to Carter in 1976.

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1976: What was most unusual about these debates is that it was the incumbent, Gerald Ford, who fought for them. He was trailing Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter by double digits going into the three debates. The most memorable moment came in their second encounter, focusing on foreign policy, when Ford declared that there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." The president seemed to be saying that the Poles et al., never felt in their heart of hearts that they were dominated by Moscow. But the media saw it as a gaffe, and it clearly halted Ford's momentum. The vice presidential debate between Sens. Bob Dole (R) and Walter Mondale (D) was seen as a disaster for the GOP, especially with Dole's talk of Americans who died in "Democrat wars." Given Ford's pardon of Nixon and the remaining stench of Watergate, there were more than a few things that cost the Republicans the election. But the Ford-Dole ticket lost to Carter-Mondale by just two points.

1980: President Carter agreed to hold only one debate with his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, and that decision — and the decision to hold it so late in the campaign (Oct. 28) — is probably what cost Carter the presidency. The race was essentially even going into the Cleveland debate. Two Reagan lines — "There you go again," to one of Carter's claims, and his closing question ("Are you better off than you were four years ago?") sealed the deal. Immediately after the debate Reagan jumped ahead in the polls and went on to a landslide victory.

1984: Nothing short of a Reagan collapse was going to help Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, who trailed by double digits. But the president was unusually unsteady and seemed nervous in his first encounter with Mondale, and most reviews had Mondale the clear winner. And what if the Minnesotan would prevail in the second debate as well? Well, he didn't. People tend to forget that in that second debate, Reagan had a rambling, almost incoherent closing statement. What they remember is Reagan's retort to a question about whether he was too old to serve for another four years. "I will not," the president said, straight-faced, "for political purposes, exploit my opponent's youth and inexperience." Game, set, match.

1988: Two memorable moments. In the second presidential debate between Vice President George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis, moderator Bernard Shaw of CNN asked Dukakis, a foe of the death penalty, a hypothetical question about what if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered. Dukakis gave an emotionless response defending his opposition, a telling moment that all but killed his candidacy. And if there is any question about the importance, or lack of same, of the V.P. debates, no better example is this one, in which Sen. Lloyd Bentsen took all the kudos for his "you're no Jack Kennedy" putdown of Republican Dan Quayle. And yet the Bush-Quayle ticket won 40 of the 50 states.

1992: The inclusion of Ross Perot made this the first time a presidential debate had three participants. President Bush had the disadvantage of two opponents, Perot and Democrat Bill Clinton, taking him on; he also didn't do himself any favors by being seen looking at his watch at one point. The V.P. debate, aside from a slugfest between incumbent Quayle and Democratic challenger Al Gore, featured the now-famous introductory line of Adm. James Stockdale, Perot's running mate, who said, "Who am I? Why am I here?" Stockdale later had to ask the moderator, ABC's Hal Bruno, to repeat a question because his hearing aid wasn't on.

1996: President Clinton went into the debates with GOP challenger Bob Dole with a clear lead in the polls, and nothing happened in the two encounters to change anything. Dole, who was criticized by his fellow Republicans for "going easy" on the president in the first debate, went all out in the second, hitting Clinton on ethics and honesty. But Clinton parried the attacks, and the debates didn't change the dynamic.

2000: Vice President Al Gore went into his face-offs with Texas Gov. George W. Bush seen as the smarter, far better debater. We can argue forever who was smarter or better, but the unmistakable truth is that Gore had a five-point lead in the polls prior to the first debate and was five points behind after their third encounter. Gore's audible sighs during some Bush responses may have been the most memorable part of the debates. It was an election in which Gore became the first candidate in the 20th century to win the popular vote but lose the election in the Electoral College.

2004: Democrat John Kerry was faced with the task of convincing Americans he was better suited to run the country at a time when the U.S. was fighting a war in Iraq and still recovering from the unimaginable terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. Bush had a small lead going into the debates, but most polls showed him doing poorly in the first one — where Kerry faulted him for his Iraq policy — and no better than even in the second. In the third, Bush was the aggressor, going after Kerry as a "flip-flopper" and a "liberal." The race was considered dead even after the third and final debate, but they were not seen as being a deciding factor in the outcome.

2008: It was not going to be an easy sell for Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee hoping to succeed his term-limited fellow Republican Bush. The near-collapse of the nation's financial industry, the rise in gasoline and food prices and the seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were all weighing on voters' minds. He also had to distance himself from the unpopular Bush without alienating loyal Republican voters. He also had the disadvantage of wrapping up the GOP nomination very early, whereas Sen. Barack Obama, his eventual Democratic opponent, spent much of the spring campaigning around the country, debating Hillary Clinton and letting more voters see what kind of a candidate he was. While McCain had the edge in experience, he was 72 years old compared with the 47-year-old Obama, which was the greatest age differential in presidential campaign history. And in the debates, Obama's "cool" triumphed over McCain's "hot."

2012 Debate Sked. All air from 9 to 10:30 Eastern time.

Wednesday, Oct. 3 — University of Denver (domestic policy). Moderator: PBS' Jim Lehrer.

Tuesday, Oct. 16 — Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. (town meeting format). Moderator: CNN's Candy Crowley.

Monday, Oct. 22 — Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. (foreign policy). Moderator: CBS' Bob Schieffer.

There is also a vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan on Thursday, Oct. 11, at Centre College in Danville, Ky. Moderator: ABC's Martha Raddatz.

Electoral Vote Contest: Predict how many electoral votes President Obama and Mitt Romney get on Nov. 6, and the person who comes closest wins a Political Junkie T-shirt! Make sure to include your name and address and mail to: politicaljunkie@npr.org. Deadline is Tuesday, Oct. 2 — the day before the first debate. In case of a tie, the earliest entry wins.

And yes, the T-shirts do exist!

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Meet the Challengers: I initiated this feature back in 2006, by which I asked for you to send in campaign buttons for candidates for the Senate, House and governor. My end of the bargain — aside from satisfying my button craze, which is bordering on the unhealthy — would be to feature the candidates in a "meet the challenger" section of the column. I'm resuming it this week, with the focus on Richard Carmona, the Democratic nominee for the open Senate seat in Arizona. Three-term Republican Jon Kyl is retiring.

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Carmona, who hopes to become Arizona's first Latino senator, is making his first run for office. He was awarded two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam. He was later trained as a surgeon and also served for more than 25 years in the Pima County (Arizona) Sheriff's Department. In 2002, President Bush picked him to be the 17th Surgeon General of the U.S., and he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. He was best known for warning about the dangers of secondhand smoke. Pushed out of his job in 2006, he later publicly broke with the president, complaining that the Bush administration was placing politics over science. Testifying before Congress in 2007, he said, "The job of surgeon general is to be the doctor of the nation, not the doctor of a political party."

As the Democratic nominee, he has a tough hill to climb in Arizona, where no Democrat has won a Senate race since Dennis DeConcini in 1988. His Republican opponent is Rep. Jeff Flake, who has been favored to win from the outset but he unexpectedly had to spend far more than he thought in winning the GOP primary. Recently FreedomWorks, a Tea Party-backed group, has sent additional money and staff to Arizona, a sign some thought to mean the race is tightening. And it may be. A recent poll by HighGround Public Affairs Consultants, which is considered Republican-leaning, had Flake up by only 43-40 percent. I still have Flake winning it, but it's one to watch.

Want to see your candidate's campaign button appear in the next column while at the same time making me happy? Send your 2012 buttons to me at NPR, 635 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20001.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week — some serious, some not — on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin. Time for some readers' questions:

Q: You've said a hundred times that V.P. candidates (almost) never help tickets win their geographical home region — with the single (?) post-WWII example of LBJ in 1960, winning the South for Kennedy, with a little help from his friends. But I wonder, will Paul Ryan help the GOP win Wisconsin? The exit polls during the governor recall vote suggested that even most of those who voted against the recall planned to vote Obama in November. How do you think it looks today? — Jeff Ewener, Toronto, Canada

A: There was a sense, at the time Romney chose Ryan, that it would help the ticket in the Badger State. Republicans haven't won Wisconsin since 1984, but it was pretty close in 1988 (Michael Dukakis beat George H.W. Bush 51-48 percent), and it was extremely close in 2000 (Al Gore edged out George W. Bush 47.8-47.6 percent) and 2004 (John Kerry beat Bush 50-49 percent despite calling the Green Bay Packers' Lambeau Field "Lambert Field").

But it wasn't close last time out — Obama beat John McCain by 14 points — and if the latest polls are to be believed, it may not be especially competitive this year. Romney is trailing in every Wisconsin poll that's been released in recent weeks, and his prospects are so iffy that former Gov. Tommy Thompson, the GOP Senate candidate this year, has openly wondered if the weakness at the top of the ticket might be affecting his own prospects.

This comes as a big disappointment to the GOP, which had a banner year in 2010, when Scott Walker won the governorship and Ron Johnson ousted Russ Feingold for the Senate. Republicans also picked up two congressional seats and won control of both houses of the state legislature. And, as you noted, they also triumphed with the attempted Walker recall. But right now, I'm putting Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes in the Obama column.

Q: You correctly pointed out [see Sept. 24 Junkie column] that the last time a ticket lost the home states of both the presidential and vice presidential candidates was in 1972, when the Democrats lost both George McGovern's South Dakota and Sargent Shriver's Maryland as part of their 49-state wipeout. I'm not sure that's a fair test, however, since both parties nominated Marylanders that year, with incumbent V.P. Spiro Agnew renominated for the GOP. Is there another example? — Harvey Hudson, Eden Prairie, Minn.

And ...

Q: Has that scenario [a ticket losing both home states] ever happened and the ticket still won the electoral college vote? — Adam G. Bass, West Hollywood, Calif.

A: We don't have to go back much further. In 1968, Richard Nixon, by then a New York resident, lost the Empire State, and his running mate, the aforementioned Agnew, lost Maryland. What makes that example unique is that the Nixon-Agnew ticket was elected that year.

If you don't buy Nixon as a New Yorker, then there was 1956, when the Democratic ticket was defeated in Adlai Stevenson's Illinois and running mate Estes Kefauver's Tennessee in the loss to Eisenhower and Nixon.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Unfortunately for America, I was gone last week which, if nothing else, meant there was no trivia question and no T-shirt winner.

Special program: We will be doing the show this week in the spanking new studios of St. Louis Public Radio in, well, St. Louis, Mo. And later that evening, there will be added goodies: before a live audience, Neal and I will host a pre-debate program, where we will play great moments from previous presidential debates. Then we will all watch the first Obama-Romney debate (live from Denver) on a giant screen, followed by a post-debate analysis. The event takes place at UMSL at Grand Center, 3651 Olive St., in St. Louis. Contact SLPR for details.

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner in crime, Ron Elving, and me. You can listen to that here:

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And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week's contest, which you can see here. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets the very famous Junkie T-shirt!

Most recent winner: Joan Steinberg of Scarborough, Maine

ON THE CALENDAR:

Oct. 3 — First presidential debate, University of Denver. Also: TOTN's Political Junkie segment from St. Louis.

Oct. 10 — TOTN's Political Junkie segment from Columbus, Ohio.

Oct. 11 — Vice Presidential debate, Centre College in Danville, Ky.

Oct. 16 — Second presidential debate, Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Oct. 22 — Third presidential debate, Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Nov. 6 — ELECTION DAY. Also: Louisiana primary.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

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This day in campaign history: A Gallup Poll taken of people of all political persuasions has Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., with a clear lead over President Lyndon Johnson. The poll has Kennedy — who has repeatedly said he won't challenge Johnson for the nomination — with 51 percent of the vote, compared with 39 percent for LBJ. Three months earlier, Johnson led 45-39 percent (Oct. 1, 1967).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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