“[In t]he general election . . [i]t is unlikely that the debates. . .will matter. . . much; they rarely do.”
--National Review editorial
The National Review is in the tank for Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich’s strong point is debates, and he believes that if nominated, he can beat Barack Obama in presidential debates this fall. In discounting the decisiveness of debates, the National Review is rewriting history. Presidential debates played a major or dominant role in deciding 8 of 10 (80%) of the elections during which they took place.
Here are the presidential debates that mattered:
1960: First debate ever. Kennedy holds his own, looks better than Nixon, emerges as presidential, wins debate and election. Debate so consequential that no debates take place in 1964, 1968, or 1972.
1976: Second debate of three. Ford unaccountably and inaccurately proclaims Poland is not under Soviet domination, in spite of moderator’s effort to help him say otherwise. Ford loses debate and election.
1980: Only Reagan-Carter debate, held week before election. Reagan (picture) parries Carter attacks with “There you go again” and concludes by asking voters, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Reagan wins debate and election in a landslide. Debate so consequential subsequent final debates all held at least two weeks before election.
1984: Second debate of two. In first debate, Reagan stumbled and showed his age. In second, Reagan crushed age issue by saying, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Mondale threat effectively collapsed at that point.
1988: Second debate of two. Asked if he would still oppose capital punishment if his wife were raped and murdered, Dukakis replied by statistically documenting the ineffectiveness of capital punishment. Dukakis lost the debate and the election to Bush 41.
1992: Second debate of three between Bush 41, Clinton, and Ross Perot. In first ever town hall format debate, an apparently bored Bush was caught on camera looking at his watch during audience-candidate discussion of the weak economy. Symbolized Bush’s detachment from the economy and helped cost him the election.
1996: None. Clinton kept his lead over Dole through two debates.
2000: First of three debates. Gore caught audibly sighing several times during Bush 43 answers, a demonstration of condescension that voters disliked, helping cost Gore a very close election.
2000: Third of three debates. Gore walks up to Bush while Bush is answering a Gore question, invading Bush’s personal space, a demonstration of disrespect that voters disliked, helping cost Gore a very close election.
2004: Third of three debates. Kerry publicly calls out Vice President Chaney’s lesbian daughter to make the point that homosexuality is inherent, not acquired, crossing a personal-political line to which the Chaneys strongly objected, likely costing Kerry votes in a close election.
2008: None. Obama kept his lead over McCain through three debates.