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Point: Do Presidential Debates Still Matter?

For an alternative viewpoint, see “Counterpoint: Rethinking the Significance of Presidential Debates.”

What nominee would bet on the proposition that the presidential debates don’t matter and then choose not to prepare?

Jimmy Carter’s desultory prep in 1980, combined with Ronald Reagan’s reassuring and masterful performance — “There you go again” — arguably turned a close election into a landslide that reshaped American politics for a generation. Barack Obama‘s uncharacteristic lack of discipline in the lead-up to his first encounter with Mitt Romney in 2012 led to an excruciating 90 minutes that drove Democrats into mass hysteria. He won the election anyway, although only after a hypersonic Joe Biden dominated Paul Ryan in their vice-presidential exchange, and then Romney himself was shredded on the issue of Benghazi in the second debate — by a tag team of Obama and the debate moderator.

So do debates matter? Like most things in life and politics, sometimes yes, and sometimes no. Here are some other examples.

1960: Vice President Richard Nixon was running on the slogan  “Experience Counts” when he made the mistake of debating  John F. Kennedy. JFK used his opening statement — eight minutes long, without a single note — to define the terms of this high-stakes clash, which Nixon then largely accepted as he quibbled like a point-by-point high school debater with Kennedy’s arguments while often repeating them literally word for word.

Without the debates, especially the first one, it’s hard to imagine that the youngest president elected in one of the closest contests in history would have reached the White House. (And Kennedy’s triumph wasn’t all about image. The oft-told story that voters who listened on the radio instead of watching on television believed Nixon prevailed ignores the reality that those voters couldn’t watch: They were concentrated in pre-cable rural areas and the mountain west, which already heavily favored Nixon.)

1976: After an unexpectedly strong performance in the first debate, with the once beleaguered Gerald  Ford having closed a yawning gap with Jimmy Carter to just 2 percent, Ford’s momentum stalled for a crucial period after he insisted  in their second confrontation that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”

There is a convincing case that rhetorically freeing Poland did make the decisive difference in an election where a switch of a few thousand votes in a few states would have yielded an Electoral College majority for Ford.

1992 … when an indelible image truly did matter. The most memorable moment of the debates that year was incumbent George H.W. Bush glancing impatiently at his watch as an earnest questioner in the town hall audience asked him how the recession had affected him personally. The episode was a powerful metaphor for a presidency that appeared tired and out of ideas in a country yearning for change. Did it determine the results? Not by itself, but it does suggest a guideline: Maybe candidates should take their watch off before mounting the debate stage.

In other cases, assessing the effect of these face-to-face encounters is hard. How much did Donald Trump’s crass antics hurt him in 2016 and 2020 — and less noticed, how much did his emphasis on trade and immigration in the early innings of his first clash with Hillary Clinton help him in the Blue Wall states that crumbled on Election Day?

And sometimes, as in 1988, 1996 and 2008, debates won’t bend the campaign arc at all unless the likely winner’s performance is the unlikely political equivalent of bellyflopping into an empty swimming pool.

Finally, for me, there’s also a painful irony here: You can win all of the now customary three presidential debates and still lose the election — which, as the Gallup Poll showed, is precisely what happened with John Kerry’s narrow defeat in 2004.

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QUIZ: Presidential Debates — Encounters That Make, and Break, Candidates

The drama surrounding the coming August 23 Republican presidential debate is a reminder of how high the stakes can be when candidates face off in front of the nation. Just how much do you know about these all-important encounters in America’s political past? Test your knowledge with this short, fun quiz.

1. What is generally considered the forerunner of today’s modern debates?

A. The 1787 debate over the U.S. Constitution

B. The 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates

C. The 1902 debate over the Panama Canal

D. None of the above

Answer: B. Democrat Stephen Douglas and Republican Abraham Lincoln squared off in seven debates during their Illinois U.S. Senate seat contest, each lasting three hours(!). 

2. When the tradition was revived in the landmark 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, a new element was added with the arrival of what technology?

A. Newspapers

B. Radio

C. Television

D. Satellites

Answer: C. Though television was still in its infancy, a survey found voters who listened to the debates on the radio thought Richard Nixon had won, while TV viewers gave the win to John F. Kennedy. That played a decisive role in November’s presidential election, one of the closest in U.S. history.

3. Presidential debates went on hiatus until being revived by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976, with a new wrinkle added. What was it?

A. They were shown in movie theaters

B. They were broadcast in the Soviet Union

C. They were held weekly until Election Day

D. They included a vice-presidential debate

Answer: D. Democrat Walter Mondale debated Republican Bob Dole in the first such encounter between running mates.

4. A major squabble in the 1980 campaign upset the entire debate schedule, resulting in incumbent Jimmy Carter skipping the first contest. What was the source of the disagreement?

A. Allowing an independent third candidate to participate

B. A dispute over the moderator

C. Argument over the panel that would ask questions

D. A delay in televising the debate

Answer: A. The League of Women Voters, which hosted the event, allowed independent candidate John Anderson to participate. Carter skipped it in protest, leaving Anderson and Republican Ronald Reagan. After intense negotiations, Carter and Reagan debated one on one on Oct. 28, one week before Election Day. 

5. During their second debate of the 1984 presidential election, incumbent Ronald Reagan pledged he was “not going to exploit, for political purposes,” his opponent Walter Mondale’s …

A. “Liberal political record.”

B. “Questionable business practices.”

C. “Youth and inexperience.”

D. “Decision to avoid the draft.”

Answer: C. Reagan was 73, which, at the time, was considered old. His poor performance in the first debate raised the age issue. Mondale later said that after Reagan delivered that line, he knew the election was over. Reagan went on to win 49 states.

6. During a vice-presidential debate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, told his opponent, “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine … you’re no Jack Kennedy.” He was speaking to:

A. George H.W. Bush

B. Paul Ryan

C. Ted Kennedy

D. Dan Quayle

Answer: D. Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) was 41 when 1988 GOP nominee George H.W. Bush tapped him to be his vice president. When asked if he had the experience to serve, Quayle invoked the example of JFK — perhaps one time too many.