Why Incumbents Lose Presidential Debates

Obama will come into the Denver debate as the odds-on favorite, but don’t believe it. History shows he will be at a disadvantage.

Pres: Ronald Reagan, right, debates Walter Mondale, Oct. 7, 1984, Louisville, Ky. 
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George E. Condon Jr.
Sept. 27, 2012, noon

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. 

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