President Obama enters his first debate with Mitt Romney on Wednesday in Denver as the clear favorite, just as presidents were presumed to have the upper hand the six times they ran for reelection since 1976. But the experts who set the odds were wrong in five of those six years. And there is good reason to believe they may be wrong again.
The logic of making a sitting president the odds-on favorite is eminently sound. Incumbents, after all, have experience as president of the United States. They have negotiated with foreign leaders, ordered military operations, consoled widows, managed budgets, commanded the bureaucracy, and traveled the world. It is only logical that they should be faster with facts, slower to be rattled, and—for lack of a better term—more presidential in debate. But history has taught a different lesson. It tells us that presidents are at a distinct disadvantage when they first debate their challenger.
Incumbent Gerald Ford was bested in debate by challenger Jimmy Carter; incumbent Carter was outdebated by challenger Ronald Reagan; incumbent Reagan lost badly in debate to challenger Walter Mondale; incumbent George H.W. Bush was topped in debate by challenger Bill Clinton; incumbent George W. Bush was seen as the loser in debate to challenger John Kerry. The only exception was incumbent Clinton, who had no trouble dispatching challenger Bob Dole, a notoriously bad debater, in their contests in 1996.
Reagan might have had the most succinct message for those who think incumbents have the advantage in debates: “Shut up.” That was what an angry Reagan yelled at David Stockman during preparations for his first 1984 debate with Mondale. Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, was playing Mondale in the prep sessions, and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon reported that his attacks on Social Security left the president “shaken” and angry, provoking his outburst. Stockman and Reagan’s other top aides knew that the president had been lazy in his approach to the debate and had grown soft and unprepared for his showdown with Mondale. The result, as Reagan himself acknowledged, was that Mondale clobbered the president in Louisville, Ky.
Shaken by a performance that he immediately called “terrible,” Reagan told reporters a few days later that he had found debating as an incumbent much more difficult than debating as a challenger. “I think the incumbent is—unless he drops a bomb on the other fellow—is going to automatically be tagged as not having done well because he didn’t destroy somebody.” Asked if an incumbent is always at a disadvantage, Reagan responded, “Sure, because he’s under attack. I look back now at the times in debates when I wasn’t the incumbent and never realized how easy it was to be on the other side.”
Reagan’s pique during preparations is not unusual. It is actually the norm for incumbents. Samuel Popkin, a political-science professor at the University of California (San Diego), advised three Democratic nominees before their debates. He was brought to Camp David in 1980 to play the role of Reagan in debate prep for Carter. Like Stockman four years later, Popkin incurred the wrath of his president, as he disclosed for the first time in his new book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win—and Hold—the White House. Aides knew that Carter was unprepared for Reagan and ordered Popkin to “hold nothing back.” So in his very first answer, he used Reagan’s own words to pummel the president. “I could see that Carter was bewildered. When I spoke he would alternately feign a smile or wrinkle his nose in disgust; look away from me in embarrassment or glare at me in anger,” he wrote.
Popkin told National Journal, “I really thought the Secret Service was going to kneecap me. Carter turned red in the face and got flustered, and, after only 11 minutes he said, ‘That is enough’ and tried to call it off.”
Popkin said he had always believed that reaction was unique to Carter until he started researching his book and discovered that every incumbent resists the prep work and reacts badly to being challenged. “Nobody on staff ever questions a president’s motives and nobody around him ever challenges him,” he said, contending there is very much an “emperor-has-no-clothes” aspect for leaders who have spent four years sheltered in the protective presidential bubble and surrounded by sycophantic aides.
Then add to that resistance the fact that incumbents are almost always rusty when it comes to debating. Romney this year has spent 43 hours in 23 separate debates. Never flashy, he was solid and disciplined, clearly losing only one debate when he impulsively challenged Texas Gov. Rick Perry to make a $10,000 bet. In contrast, Obama has not debated in four years. And while he improved as a debater over the course of 2008, he stumbled far more often than Romney did this year. Obama was too often professorial and discursive and found it difficult to be concise. He promised in one debate to meet with America’s enemies with no preconditions, and in another he was seen as cruel to Hillary Rodham Clinton when he coldly assessed her likability. In his general-election debates, he was blessed with low expectations against the much more experienced John McCain.
But now, as the incumbent, Obama faces the same sky-high expectations that dogged all his recent predecessors. As Popkin says, “You can’t convince people that the most powerful person in the world doesn’t have a lightning bolt.” It always seems to surprise American voters that their presidents are mortal and very capable of looking old, distracted, or annoyed. It shouldn’t.
Originally published in print as Shaking the Rust Off.
This article appears in the September 29, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.