Debates Deciding The Presidency? It's Debatable What could decide the winner of this year's presidential campaign — perhaps once and for all — are the upcoming debates.
NPR logo Debates Deciding The Presidency? It's Debatable

Debates Deciding The Presidency? It's Debatable

President Ford's 1976 debate gaffe about Eastern Europe damaged his chances for re-election. hide caption

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The first presidential debate with three candidates. hide caption

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Fifty-six years ago today, Gen. Eisenhower — one day after Richard Nixon's "Checkers" speech — said Nixon would remain as his running mate. hide caption

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There seems to be an indication that Barack Obama may have put a stop to the McCain-Palin surge. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll has Obama ahead 52-43 percent among likely voters. The meltdown on Wall Street, dramatic drops in the Dow and growing economic uncertainty may be responsible for giving Obama a boost. But by most accounts, this race is too close to call.

What could decide the winner — perhaps once and for all — are the upcoming debates, starting with Friday evening's affair at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. The stakes are enormous.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This column was written prior to John McCain's surprise suggestion on Wednesday afternoon that Friday's debate be postponed.)

As we saw during the primaries, John McCain often is found at debates with a constant (though sometimes awkward) smile, and, as a genuine war hero, he has personal stories that touch the heart. But he sometimes finds it difficult to stick to his talking points, and if he is in unfamiliar territory it shows. He can explode and launch into personal attacks. His strength is national security and foreign policy (the ostensible subjects on Friday), but he could be put on the defensive over his long-standing support for the war in Iraq. And it will be a stark contrast, as a 72-year-old, standing on the same stage with the much younger Obama, who is 47 — the greatest age difference in presidential history. A key for McCain is whether he can convince voters that he offers a departure from the past eight years.

Obama, on the other hand, may be cool to McCain's hot, but he can appear too cool and too detached. His answers are more reflective than his supporters would like, but he can parry an attack better than most. But he also can come off as lecturing. He is more somber than McCain and is less prone to come up with the one-liner or sound bite that unfortunately headlines much of the media's post-debate analysis.

It says here that Obama is a far more polished and eloquent debater than he is given credit for and should do better, far better, than his Republican rival. His long primary battles with Hillary Clinton are credited with improving his rhetorical skills, whereas McCain was rarely pushed by his GOP rivals.

But going into the debates as a better debater does not necessarily mean you will "win" the debates — as history has shown. Can McCain sell himself as an agent of change? Can Obama persuade voters to trust him to lead the nation? The candidates have three opportunities before what may be record TV audiences.

And what to make of the Oct. 2 vice presidential debate between Palin and Joe Biden? We won't even pretend to know what's going to happen in that one.

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

1960: In some ways, 1960 may be the situation most comparable to today. There was the Republican, a candidate with lots of experience (Vice President Richard Nixon). And there was this relatively untested Democratic senator (Massachusetts' John Kennedy), who worked hard 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, and Nixon, who focused on briefing books at the expense of 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.

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 the second debate, focusing on foreign policy, when Ford declared that there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." The president seemed to mean that the Poles, et al., never felt in their heart of hearts 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 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." The Ford-Dole ticket lost to Carter-Mondale by 2 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, what he would do if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered. Dukakis gave an emotionless response, a telling moment that all but killed his candidacy. Even the VP debate, in which Sen. Lloyd Bentsen won applause for his "you're no Jack Kennedy" putdown of Republican Dan Quayle, was not enough to save the Democrats.

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 taking him on; he also didn't do himself any favor by being seen looking at his watch at one point. The VP 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 Bill 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.

2000: Vice President Al Gore went into his face-offs with Texas Gov. George W. Bush seen as the smarter, far better debater. While Gore's audible sighs during some Bush responses may have hurt the VP in some post-debate analysis, the encounters were not thought to have affected 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: In this first post-Sept. 11 election, Democrat John Kerry needed to hit one out of the park if he was going to defeat President Bush. He didn't.

GRANT BURIES GREELEY: Our discussion last issue as to what would happen if a presidential candidate were to die before the election reminded several readers, including Philip Leib of Westfield, N.J.; William Vodrey of Cleveland and Joel Goldstein, a law professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law, about Horace Greeley.

Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, was a Republican but also an opponent of President Ulysses S. Grant (R), whose corruption led to the formation of the Liberal Republican Party in 1872. The Liberal Republicans nominated Greeley to run against Grant, and the Democrats quickly followed as well. But Grant won a landslide re-election victory. Less than a month after the election, on Nov. 29, Greeley died — before the Electoral College had its say.

Electors from the six states Greeley carried split their vote among several candidates. But with Grant receiving a strong majority of the vote and the Electoral College, Greeley's death did not upend the will of the voters.

PALINTOLOGY: A nice note from Dr. Phillip Serna, a faculty member at Valparaiso University and a noted musician, who writes, "I always enjoy your Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation, but you had the most disarming pun yet on (Friday's) Morning Edition, when the topic changed from Moose meat to the economy, and you interjected with, 'Well, there's no place like Nome.' Thanks for keeping a fun attitude towards what has been a bleak (but colorful) political season."

KPCC EVENT: A heartfelt expression of thanks to all the wonderful folks at KPCC, the largest public radio station in Southern California, who put up with me last weekend for a speaking engagement before a huge crowd of people who have given generously to the station over the years. Thanks also to host Patt Morrison, whose interview of me at the event is surely the low point of her career. And a hearty congratulations to Larry Mantle, host of Air Talk, who celebrated his 25th anniversary with the station.


Back in 2006, we initiated this feature, by which we asked for you to send in campaign buttons for candidates for the Senate, House and governor. Our end of the bargain — aside from satisfying Ken Rudin's button craze, which is bordering on the unhealthy — would be to feature the candidates in a "meet the challenger" section.

Vaden for Congress button

This week: Willie Vaden, a Republican running in Texas' 27th District, and Bob Hamilton, a Democrat in California's 49th CD.


Vaden is making his third run against Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-TX), hoping to improve on the 28 percent he received two years ago and the 35 percent he got in 2004 in this majority Hispanic district. Vaden is a former mayor of Ingleside who served with the Marines in Vietnam, receiving several medals. He is running on a platform that opposes illegal immigration ("Texas is suffering greatly" as a result of illegal immigration), supports victory in Iraq ("Now is not the time to call for a retreat" since "we are winning"), making the tax cuts permanent and repealing CAFTA/NAFTA ("I don't want America to suffer to enhance other countries").


Hamilton for Congress button

If Vaden is attempting his third run for Congress, Democrat Hamilton, a retired international businessman, is making his first bid, though he has been involved in local politics in the past. And like Vaden, he is a Vietnam veteran. In taking on Rep. Darrell Issa (R), Hamilton hopes his experience in finance and business will make a difference at a time when voters are searching for answers to the economic crisis. He promises to "focus on the critical needs of the people in the district, to foster an economy that genuinely supports business growth and entrepreneurship, and to bring back the image of America, at home and abroad, as a beacon of freedom, hope and opportunity."


Want to see your candidate's campaign button appear in the next column? And, at the same time, make Ken Rudin happy? Send your 2008 buttons to Political Junkie, 635 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20001.




Sept. 26 — First presidential debate, University of Mississippi in Oxford, 9 p.m. Eastern time


Oct. 2 — Vice presidential debate, Washington University in St. Louis


Oct. 4 — Louisiana primary


Oct. 7 — Second presidential debate, Belmont University, Nashville, Tenn.


Oct. 15 — Third presidential debate, Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.




POLITICAL JUNKIE EVERY WEDNESDAY AT THE NEWSEUM: This week, another attempt at interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes, when the "Political Junkie" segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), as it does every Wednesday before a live audience at the Newseum, Washington's interactive museum dedicated to journalism. The Newseum is located at 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., off Sixth Street.


Want to be part of that audience? The tickets are free. And you get to see what Ken Rudin looks like in person, a worrisome proposition in any case. Send an e-mail request to


This week's special guest: Bernie Shaw, the former CNN anchor who played a memorable role in the 1988 presidential debate between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. (NOTE: The Oct. 8 edition of Junkie on TOTN will take place in Columbus, Ohio.)


Hopefully, this week's show will include none of the excitement that filled last week's program, whereby an alarm went off in the middle of the program at the Newseum, forcing the audience to leave the studio. It even got to a point where we had to hustle Ron Elving, my podcast cohort, into a studio back at NPR in case Neal Conan and I had to flee the Newseum as well. (As I told Neal at the time, I would rather perish in a fire than let Elving get on the air.) As it turned out, it was a false alarm; we got the "all clear" sign after 10 harrowing minutes or so.


Remember, if your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can hear the program on the Web or on HD radio. And if you are a subscriber to Sirius radio, you can find the show there as well (siriusly).


IT'S ALL POLITICS: I'm sorry, but if you want funny podcasts, then there has to be funny news. And there hasn't been funny news lately, hence last week's sober podcast. (Thank God for the upcoming debates!) You can hear our weekly podcast every Thursday here.


A nice review from the blogger "Beckalina" (I don't make this stuff up), who loves "It's All Politics": "Fantastic, unbiased weekly analysis of what has been going on in American politics from the good people at NPR. For me, this show is the 'Car Talk' of politics. The hosts Ron Elvin [oops] and Ken Rudin are a fabulous team with encyclopedic political history knowledge and entertaining wit to top it off. My only complaint is that it is just once a week."


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


This day in campaign history: One day after Sen. Richard Nixon (R-CA) went on national radio and television to defend his use of a privately raised personal expense fund — later dubbed the "Checkers" speech — Dwight Eisenhower said Nixon had "vindicated himself" and would remain on the GOP ticket for vice president (Sept. 24, 1952).


Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: