Wednesday, October 3, 2012

5 Presidential Debates That Changed Everything

5 Presidential Debates That Changed Everything

It's that time of year again, when the press hovers anxiously over every word, glance, and sigh from the candidates.  When the hot lights beam down, and there is no place to hide.  Yes, that's right, its time for...THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES!!!!!  This year, both the Obama and Romney camps are busy downplaying expectations.  According to their respective camps, if either candidate manages to leave the stage without puking and/or soiling themselves, the audience is supposed to regard this as an unmitigated victory.  The truth is, most of the time the debates don't matter.  It is very rare for politicians to get all the way up to the presidential level without having plenty of debate experience in their past.  Most candidates know enough to smile, answer the question or do an artful dodge, and keep on trucking.  However, the exception sometimes proves the rule.  Here are five presidential debates that changed everything...

"Come at me, bro!"

1988 George HW Bush v. Michael Dukakis

This was the infamous "rape question."  Dukakis was asked if his wife were raped and killed, would he then be in favor of the death penalty.  Dukakis's reply was far too cool.  "No, I don't, Bernard," he said. "And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life."  This response was deemed inadequate.  The thinking went, "if this guy won't even get furious about the rape and murder of his wife, can we really trust him to protect America?"    I personally think that Dukakis should have said of course he would want to kill the perpetrators, but that's why we have the dispassionate law system, and not victim's families make these decisions.  However Dukakis, for whatever reason, did not consult me about this, and thus went on to lose the election in crushing numbers.

1960 John F. Kennedy v. Richard Nixon

This was the first televised presidential debate, and it changed how things were done.  Now it is completely understood that optics matter, but back then, television was still a relatively new medium.  Nixon was recently discharged from a hospital stay, while JFK had just come back from a trip to California.  Nixon refused all offers to do his makeup, and went on stage barefaced and pasty, with what looked like a five o'clock shadow, and a fine sheen of sweat on his brow.  JFK, on the other hand, looked tanned, healthy, and hale.  While Nixon's body language radiated unease and uncomfortability, JFK looked confident and relaxed.  People on who listened to the debate on the radio though Nixon won the debate.  People who watched tv thought overwhelming that Kennedy won.  Optics matter.

2000 Al Gore v. George W. Bush

This a debate where manipulating people's expectations, in addition to optics, definitely mattered.  Al Gore had been relying on the perception that Bush was an intellectual lightweight, who was not smart enough to become president.  Gore seemed to revel in the perception that he was going to crush Bush in the debates.  Bush's people, in contrast, let it be known that they weren't entirely certain if Bush would be breaking out into incomprehensible monkey noises during key moments of the debate.  When the debates rolled around, Bush managed to talk, in English, in semi-comprehensible sentences.  Victory!  Gore, on the other hand, seemed like a douchebag.  His incessant sighing, constant interruptions, and patronizing tones did not seem presidential, and did not win a lot of new fans over to his side.

1976 Gerald Ford v. Jimmy Carter

Ford was still reeling somewhat from his pardon of Nixon, but was still hanging on in the polls.  But then Ford said this, "there is no Soviet domination of eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." This was contrary to all known facts at the time. It was an immediate "Whaaa?" moment not only for people who were at the debate, but for those watching at home.  While afterwards there were attempts made to clarify his statements, ultimately they proved unsuccessful, and Ford was given the boot by the voters. 

1980 Ronald Reagan v. Jimmy Carter  Reagan

Emily has already gone over this one, but Reagan was able to successfully use humor to disarm his opponent.  It worked wonderfully during this debate, but much less so four years later against Mondale.

So there you have it, some debates which managed to change the course of history.  Keep in mind that most debates do not change people's opinions, they merely solidify opinions that people already hold.  But who knows?  Perhaps tonight might be one of those game-changer moments.


  1. I agree with all 5, but it's interesting to me how much these debates have to do with somewhat superficial judgments about demeanor, bearing, and personality traits rather than actual policy.

  2. It's television. It makes things all about the visual. Humans are animals and make decisions about dominance based on what we see. So in a lot of ways we make our summation about who did the best based on those unspoken cues. Remember the "Hillary flinch" from years back, and how men interpreted it, versus how women saw it?

  3. Totally true, but also sad. If people want good policies, they should probably vote on policy. But on the other hand, it is definitely harder to hire people you don't like, and that's basically what we're talking about here. It would be better if we had more choices, maybe.