Televised debates have been around for more than half a century. Rarely do they alone determine an election’s result. But they can shift a campaign’s momentum and seal an impression of a candidate in voters’ minds. Here are four of the most important.
1. The 1960 debates between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon were the first of their kind, and among the most important. Television was still a relatively new medium, but JFK was a natural. Those who listened on the radio to the first debate – invariably the most important – considered Nixon the winner. Those (far more numerous) who saw it on TV found the cool young Democrat more personable and persuasive than his better known and more experienced opponent, a two term Vice President. Without the TV debates, Kennedy might not have won the election.
2. The next debates were not until 1976, between Gerald Ford and his Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. The second of them, dealing with foreign policy, was an example of a blunder that probably did change a race. Ford’s claim that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration,” was an especially glaring mistake, coming as it did from an incumbent president. By the time of the debate, Ford had virtually erased Carter’s earlier big lead. Thereafter, his momentum stalled and Carter went on to a narrow win in November.
3. The lone 1980 encounter between Carter and Ronald Reagan was a debate that sealed the deal – though not because of any particular piece of brilliance on Reagan’s part, or ineptitude on Carter’s. The latter was already struggling, burdened by a dismal economy and the Iran hostage crisis, but many voters still feared Reagan was a dangerous right wing fanatic who should not be entrusted with the Oval Office. His smooth and re-assuring performance (“There you go again,” he gently chided Carter at one point) largely dispelled those doubts. Reagan never looked back, and went on to win by a landslide.
4. The limited impact of debates was proved in 2004, when George W Bush sought re-election, faced by Democratic Senator John Kerry. Going into the debates, the president had a small advantage in the polls, but Kerry performed strongly in all three, especially the first on foreign policy where he outshone Mr Bush. But no matter that he seemed more ‘presidential,’ and with a much better command of the facts, and that most post-debate surveys deemed him the ‘winner.’ Bush won when it mattered most on 2 November, with 50.7 per cent of the popular vote against Kerry’s 48.3 per cent.
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