Mitt Romney was 13 years old and Barack Obama had not been born when an energetic-looking John Kennedy, 43, and a tired-looking Richard Nixon, 47, walked into the WBBM-TV studio in Chicago for the first general-election debate between presidential candidates.
It is generally held that television viewers felt Kennedy won the first debate, while those listening on radio, unaware of Nixon’s improvised makeup, felt Nixon won.
That’s probably overstated. Contemporary accounts suggest most viewers felt both candidates did well, while the single poll of radio listeners had a small sample possibly tilted toward pro-Nixon rural areas lacking TV reception.
There were three more Nixon–Kennedy debates that year and then no more until 1976. Since then, there have been 23 presidential debates and eight vice-presidential debates, with three more presidentials this year, including last night’s, and one more vice presidential.
Nixon and Kennedy debated in 1960 because they were running even in the polls and each thought he could benefit. They had offsetting advantages: Nixon was vice president in the popular Eisenhower administration, while Kennedy was the nominee of the party favored by most voters.
They each had a disadvantage, as well, as relatively young men in a nation whose presidents over the preceding 18 years had been in their sixties or seventies.
The front-runners over the next 16 years saw no advantage in debating their opponents. In 1964 and 1972, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon respectively were overwhelming favorites and didn’t want to give their opponents equal standing on a television set. And 1968 was a three-way race, which Nixon initially led, but neither he nor Hubert Humphrey wanted to share the stage with the shrewd segregationist demagogue George Wallace.
In 1976, things were different. The incumbent president, Gerald Ford, was far behind in polls, and Democrats had a two-to-one lead in party identification. He could hope that his superior knowledge would shine against a former one-term governor of Georgia.
As for Jimmy Carter, he was still a relative unknown who needed to prove his gravitas. And he had great confidence in his debating abilities.
Ironically, it was Ford’s blooper in the second of their three debates — he denied there was “Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” — that may have cost him the election.
Other debate gaffes have become famous over the years: Jimmy Carter’s citing his 13-year-old daughter’s concern about nuclear proliferation in 1980; Dan Quayle’s comparing himself with John Kennedy in 1988; Al Gore’s loud sighs and menacing body language in 2000.
Less well remembered were the steady performances by the two female vice-presidential nominees, Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008, neither of whom had much national political experience.
Well remembered are Ronald Reagan’s quips. “There you go again!” he said good-naturedly when he was attacked by Jimmy Carter in 1980. And in 1984, when asked about his age, he casually replied, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” It worked because Walter Mondale was plainly mature and experienced.
That was when debates became institutionalized. Reagan, though far ahead in the polls, felt obliged to debate. In 1987, a presidential-debates commission, chaired by former national-party chairmen, was created. It’s been setting the rules, subject to approval by the candidates, ever since.
Do debates make a difference? Maybe they did in 1960, maybe they did when Ford tripped up on Eastern Europe, maybe they did when Reagan asked if voters were better off than they were four years before.
Recent evidence seems more nuanced. Gallup polls before and after debates tell us that Bill Clinton lost ground in the 1992 debate period and gained some in the 1996 one. George W. Bush picked up support in the 2000 debate period but slipped in the 2004 one.
Barack Obama gained some ground during the 2008 debates, but it’s not clear they had anything to do with his rise. They took place when the nation was passing through the financial crisis and John McCain’s candidacy was spinning dizzily downward.
One reason debates matter, perhaps more than they once did, is that they are one of the few political events with a bipartisan audience.
This year’s debates give Mitt Romney, narrowly behind in polls, a chance to make a case against Barack Obama and for his own policies. We’ll see what he makes of it.