Eight years ago, LaGrange Daily News editor Andrea Lovejoy called me up before my class, asking me if I had seen the first presidential debate, and what I thought about it. I wasn’t able to make the interview before the deadline, but took the time to type up some impressions (at one point, I was clocked at 85 words a minute). I told her that she could use whatever she wanted from that page.
She emailed me back after my class. “I just ran it as a column,” she told me. “Would you be willing to write something about all the debates?” Thus my column-writing obsession was born.
Actually, those 2004 debates between Bush and Kerry were more significant for American political history than convincing this professor to write some articles. That is because it was the only one of ten presidential series of debates since 1960 where the clear-cut debate loser went on to win the election. So yes, debates matter.
For Kennedy, it was his appearance on television and ability to go toe-to-toe with Vice-President Nixon in 1960. No debates were held in 1964, 1968 and 1972. In 1976, Gerald Ford’s insistence that there was no Soviet domination of East Europe may have cost him the debates and election. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan only agreed to one debate in 1980, and Reagan easily prevailed with his one-liners. After an awful first performance in the first debate in 1984, Reagan came back to take the second debate and election against Walter Mondale.
George Herbert Walker Bush sealed the deal in 1988 when Michael Dukakis gave a meandering answer to a touchy question about a potentially horrible crime to his wife. H. Ross Perot surprised the establishment with two wins in two standard debates, but lost just as much ground when his running mate turned in the worst vice-presidential debate performance. Bill Clinton, who easily won the town-hall debate that year, took the election. Clinton duplicated that feat four years later in both debates against Bob Dole.
Al Gore came in with a slight lead in 2000, but his audible sighs of exasperation cost him the first debate, and the race that year, despite winning the popular vote. Barack Obama stayed calm under fire against the more experienced John McCain, just as Sarah Palin did against Joe Biden. But the nod went to the Democratic candidate.
Only in 2004 did John Kerry turn in the superior debate performance. But just as the polls showed Kerry took the debates, they also saw the momentum paradoxically shift to President George W. Bush. Perhaps it was Kerry’s line that there should be a “global test” before any future military operations should be undertaken. A LaGrange College religion professor indicated that such a line may have cost Kerry in a close election.
But as history shows, the candidate with the superior performance on such a big stage has a strong advantage in the voting booth on Election Day. And while critics claimed that in only a few cases, a poll shifted as a result of a debate (1960, 2000, 2004), the examples show that a candidate could just as easily lose a debate as win it. By staying calm and collected under fire, a front-runner like Reagan in 1980 or Clinton in 1996 can demonstrate to the voters that the lead in the polls is justified.