Friday, September 23, 2016

Presidential Debates Matter, 1960-2012

Trump, Clintons in Happier Times
 According to GOP political guru Karl Rove:
When Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton meet Monday for the first of their three debates. . . a big mistake on either side could scramble the contest. But don’t count on it.
In fact, presidential debates have played a major or dominant role in deciding most (9 of 11) of the elections during which debates took place (as we wrote in 2012).  One just can't predict which debate in each cycle will matter (there have been 30 total), and why.

Here are the presidential debates that made a difference:

1960: First debate ever (in series of three). Kennedy held his own, looked better than Nixon, emerged as presidential, won 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 proclaimed Poland was not under Soviet domination, in spite of moderator’s effort to help him say otherwise. Ford lost debate and election.

: Only Reagan-Carter debate, held week before election. Reagan parried Carter attacks with “There you go again” and concluded by asking voters, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Reagan won 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 the 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: No debates of consequence. Clinton kept his lead over Dole through two debates.

: 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 walked up to Bush while Bush was answering a Gore question, invading Bush’s personal space, a demonstration of disrespect that voters disliked, helping cost Gore a very close election.

: Third of three debates. Kerry publicly called 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: No debates of consequence. Obama kept his lead over McCain through three debates.

2012: Second of three debates.  In first, an aggressive Romney beat an unprepared Obama and tightened the race.  But in the second, Obama and moderator Candy Crowley of CNN ganged up on Romney for saying Obama falsely blamed the Benghazi massacre on an American video rather than terrorism, and a surprised Romney's lack of a comeback wiped out his first-debate advantage.

Debates matter most in tight races.  That describes where we are today.

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