There have been 26 televised presidential debates since 1976, when the events resumed after a 16-year hiatus following the iconic 1960 Kennedy-Nixon encounters. With rare exceptions over the past 40 years, debate “winners” have been determined less by policy pronouncements than “moments”—an unexpected visual, verbal, or stylistic showstopper highlighting a candidate’s dexterity, or discomfort—often altering viewers’ perceptions. Here are six of those moments that really mattered:
October 6, 1976, San Francisco
After falling behind Jimmy Carter by almost 30 points, President Ford steadily closed the gap with his Democratic challenger throughout the fall. But at the second debate in San Francisco’s stately Palace of Fine Arts, Ford was asked about the Kremlin’s influence over its Eastern European satellites. “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” he declared, “and there never will be under a Ford administration.” It was such an obvious unforced error that Max Frankel of The New York Times offered Ford a second chance. He didn’t grab the lifeline, arguing that countries like Poland were “independent, autonomous” and “the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.” Ford’s political aides knew they had a serious problem, but he disagreed, angrily rebuffing several attempts to walk back his remarks. It took nearly 24 hours before he grudgingly agreed to issue a clarification the next afternoon in Los Angeles. The media fixated on the gaffe for several days, blunting Ford’s surge and reinforcing Carter’s theme that the incumbent didn’t deserve another term.
October 28, 1980, Cleveland
After four years of high interest rates and inflation, an energy crisis, and a failed military operation to rescue American diplomats held by Iran, voters didn’t really want to reelect Carter. But many Americans harbored misgivings about Ronald Reagan, his Republican challenger. Despite two terms as governor of California, Reagan was perceived by many voters to be an amiable ex-actor who lacked the experience or talent to run a country. Reagan turned the tables by making the debate—and ultimately the election—a referendum on Carter. “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” he asked. He deftly deflated Carter’s accusations that he was a dangerous, right-wing radical. When Carter accused him of opposing Medicare and Social Security benefits, Reagan chuckled and amiably replied, “Well, there you go again.” Carter didn’t help himself by noting that in chatting with 12-year-old daughter Amy, she’d named “nuclear weaponry” the most critical issue facing the world. Republicans pounced on the remark, suggesting that Carter was listening to his daughter on foreign policy. Before the debate, Carter was slightly ahead. A week later, Reagan carried 44 states.
October 21, 1984, Kansas City
In their first debate in Louisville, Reagan performed poorly against former Vice President Walter Mondale. He seemed ill at ease, halting, befuddled, and older than his 73 years. Some pundits wondered if Reagan had some sort of mental impairment. Aides were in shock; a close friend charged that Reagan had been “brutalized” by his debate handlers. To salvage his reelection, Reagan was urged to forget about briefing books and “be yourself.” His comeback vehicle was a well-rehearsed one-liner: “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.” In one memorable phrase, Reagan dispelled notions that he’d “lost it” and reminded voters of the affable, charming guy they’d elected four years earlier.
October 13, 1988, Los Angeles
Moderator Bernard Shaw of CNN opened the second debate between Vice President George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis with arguably the most lethal question in debate history: “If [your wife] Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” As some in the audience and press room audibly gasped, Dukakis answered: “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.” Dukakis laid out a principled case against capital punishment, which Bush favored. But it was a disastrous moment for Dukakis, who had long been tagged as a stiff, robotic, policy wonk.
October 15, 1992, Richmond
Midway through the town-hall-style debate, a woman asked: “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?” President Bush seemed thrown by the question and didn’t have a coherent answer. “I’m not sure I get (it),” he admitted. Then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton strode across the stage to speak directly to the questioner in his classic “I feel your pain” persona: “In my state, when people lose their jobs there’s a good chance I’ll know them by their names. When a factory closes, I know the people who ran it.” Clinton had connected, Bush hadn’t. The impression that Bush lacked empathy with Americans suffering through the national recession was heightened when Bush was caught by cameras looking at his wristwatch. That quickly became a metaphor for an out-of-touch president waiting for the evening—and the election—to be over.
October 16, 2012, Long Island
Like Ronald Reagan in 1984, Barack Obama had stumbled through a horrible first outing against Mitt Romney in Denver. After four years without debating, Obama was out of practice—rusty, rambling, professorial. He also appeared bored, tired, and lackadaisical. Even Obama loyalists admitted that he’d been trounced and whispered that another mediocre showing could doom his reelection. At Hofstra University, however, Obama bounced back smartly. From the outset he was spirited, engaged, and on offense against Romney, painting the challenger as just another rich Republican soaking the middle class. He dismissed Romney’s five-point economic plan as “a one-point plan … to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.” Obama’s populist style reminded voters why they’d elected him in the first place.