TURES COLUMN: Presidential Debate Winners Barely Win Half Of All Elections

Published 10:00 am Saturday, July 6, 2024

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After Donald Trump’s clear victory in the first presidential debate of 2024 against Joe Biden (67 percent to 33 percent in a CNN poll), everyone’s talking about the outcome, and whether or not it will lead to a second Trump presidency.  I examined all presidential debate polls to see who won.  In only 53 percent of cases, the debate winner won the election.

In the first presidential debate poll, CNN’s polls showed Biden won 60 percent to 28 percent for Trump.  In the second presidential debate poll from CNN, Biden won 53 percent to 39 percent.  Biden went on to win in November 2020.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won all three debates, yet lost the election.  In the first debate, CNN’s poll showed her winning 62 percent to 27 percent for Trump.  Gallup polling had Clinton winning the second debate 53 percent to 35 percent. In the final debate, Gallup had Clinton prevailing 60 percent to 31 percent for Trump.

In 2012, Mitt Romney won the first debate handily, 72 percent to 20 percent for Barack Obama according to Gallup.  Obama recovered to narrowly win the second debate 37 percent to 30 percent (according to CBS), and take the last debate 48 percent to 40 percent, as surveyed by CNN.  Obama also won reelection in 2012.

In 2008, Barack Obama won all three debates against John McCain: Obama won 51 percent to 38 percent in the first debate according to CNN, and 54 percent to 30 percent in the second debate, also determined by CNN.  Obama won the third presidential debate (58 percent to 31 percent, according to CNN) and the election as well.

In 2004, John Kerry won all three debates against George W. Bush.  Newsweek’s poll showed Kerry won 61 percent to 19 percent for Bush.  According to CNN, the second debate was closer; Kerry had 47 percent and Bush had 45 percent.  Kerry won the third debate according to CNN/USA Today/Gallup polling 52 percent to 39 percent.  But Bush won the election.

In 2000, Gallup polling had Al Gore winning the first debate (48 percent to 41 percent), losing the second debate (49 percent to 36 percent) to George W. Bush, and winning the third debate 46 percent to 44 percent.  Gore won more votes, but Bush won the election that year.

In 1996, Bill Clinton easily defeated Bob Dole, in the first debate (51 percent to 31 percent), and second debate (59 percent to 29 percent), according to Gallup polling.  And Clinton won in 1996.

In 1992, Ross Perot won the first debate 47 percent to 30 percent for Clinton to 16 percent for George H. W. Bush.  Clinton came back to win the second debate (taking 58 percent while Bush got 16 percent and Perot got 15 percent) while Perot came back to win the third debate (37 percent versus 28 percent for Bush and 28 percent for Clinton).  All polls came from Gallup.  Perot finished third in the election, with Clinton winning over President Bush.

In 1988, Michael Dukakis narrowly won the first debate, but Vice-President George H. W. Bush came back to win the second debate and the election, by wide margins.

In 1984, Walter Mondale handily defeated President Ronald Reagan 54 percent to 36 percent in the first debate.  Reagan did win the second debate but by a tiny 43 percent to 40 percent margin.  Reagan won the election in a landslide.

There was only one debate between President Jimmy Carter and Governor Ronald Reagan in 1980.  Surveys from Gallup showed that Reagan did better in the debate and won the election.

In 1976, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter bested President Gerald Ford in the second debate, but a Gallup survey showed that Ford significantly cut into Carter’s big lead, narrowing it by ten percentage points.  Carter narrowly won the election.  In 1960, Nixon had a one-point lead before the debates, but Kennedy had a four-point lead after the debates, according to Gallup.

That means that in 13 elections, the debate winners have won seven of these.  In many cases, voters had their minds already made up about who they wanted to support, even before the debate.  Or they felt that the candidate’s issue positions mattered more than debates.