Watson highlights the top 10 moments in presidential debate history

List includes debate moments from 1858 – 2008 and offers lessons learned
Watson highlights the top 10 moments in presidential debate history

Published Mar. 20, 2012

Robert Watson, professor of American Studies in Lynn University’s College of Liberal Education, is one of the foremost experts and authors on first ladies and presidents. In preparation for Lynn’s hosting of the third and final presidential debate in October 2012, Watson lists his top 10 moments in presidential debate history.

From awkward moments to classic one-liners, Watson's top 10 ranges from the 1858 debate between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln to the 2008 debate between Barack Obama and John McCain.

“Do presidential debates matter? Yeah,” said Watson in a recent video verbally recounting some of the closest and most memorable debates in American history.

Watson's Top 10 Debate Moments

#10 – Awkward

2000, George W. Bush (R) vs. Al Gore (D)

The presidential debates of 2000 featured two candidates with very different approaches to debating. Tongue-tied and uncomfortable with the details of policy issues, George W. Bush struggled during the debates, whereas Al Gore was very well versed in the issues. However, even over next to him, invading Bush’s personal space in an attempt to intimidate him. Bush simply nodded his head as if to say “hey, there” and the audience chuckled. Gore ended up looking very awkward. Though Gore was thought to have won the debates from a technical standpoint, his body language hurt him. For instance, while Bush was talking, Gore frequently exhaled heavily and rolled his eyes in a condescending, know-it-all manner. Then, during the Oct.17 debate, while Bush was answering a question, Gore stood and walked

Lesson: The 2000 race was one of the closest in history. We learned that it was possible to “win” the debates from a technical standpoint yet “lose” by coming off looking smug and overly confident.

#9 – You could almost see Carter deflating

1980, Jimmy Carter (D) v. Ronald Reagan (R)

The presidential debates of 1980 were highly anticipated for a number of reasons: the economy was sagging, Americans were held hostage in Iran, and the two candidates had very different styles. Jimmy Carter was widely viewed as being intelligent but out of touch, while Ronald Reagan was known mostly for his charisma and charm. During the debates, Carter hammered away at Reagan on the issues, noting that, as governor of California, Reagan had been very critical of such popular programs as Medicare and Social Security. Although Reagan had difficulty holding his own on the issues, Carter focused too much on the intricacies of public policy in a way that failed to connect with voters and sounded more like a doom-and-gloom lecture. During the Oct. 28 debate, after Carter complained yet again about Reagan’s policy positions, the former Hollywood actor shook his head, chuckled, and said, “There you go again!”

Whenever Carter tried to “get” Reagan on the issues, Reagan delivered the line with a smile. It threw Carter off his game.Then Reagan delivered the knockout blow. Carter might know more about the issues, but the economy during his presidency was in bad shape. Quipped Reagan to the American people, “Ask yourself, ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?' ”

Lesson: Carter had no answer for Reagan’s quaint but provocative line – “There you go again” – and had trouble adjusting his debate so as to avoid looking “preachy.” In the end, sunny optimism trumped doom and gloom.

#8 – That one

2008, John McCain (R) vs. Barack Obama (D)

John McCain was running neck-and-neck with Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign… until the meltdown of the American economy in late summer, which hurt McCain because his party had been running the country. McCain came across as both frustrated and desperate. Poor decisions did little to reassure the public. For instance, he selected Sarah Palin as his vice presidential nominee, a person widely considered to be completely unprepared for high office, and he abruptly announced he was suspending his campaign in order to address the economic collapse, then had no solutions to offer.

With his judgment in question, McCain had to win the debates.The first debate on Oct. 7 was pretty much a tie, but then McCain, who appeared to be growing agitated with both his opponent and the questions, referred to Obama dismissively as “that one.” The reference was taken by some as having racist overtones, even if McCain did not intend it as such. But, the impolite reference and McCain’s awkward gestures contrasted poorly with Obama’s calm and courteous demeanor.

Lesson: With the whole world watching, a presidential debate is a pressure cooker. Candidates who fail to handle the challenge are seen by many as not having the “right stuff” to be president. McCain had endured years of physical and emotional abuse as a young prisoner of war during Vietnam, so he was clearly a strong man. But he came across as rash and volatile during the debates.

#7 – The strike out

1988, George Bush (R) vs. Michael Dukakis (D)

Though he was an informed and highly successful governor, Michael Dukakis was often criticized during the presidential campaign as lacking passion.There was also an ugly attack ad used during the campaign against Dukakis about an inmate named Willie Horton who, when furloughed, went on a heinous crime spree. The crimes were blamed on Dukakis, who had been the governor at the time of the furlough.

So, during the debate the moderator, CNN’s Bernard Shaw, lobbed Dukakis an apparent softball question. Attempting to get Dukakis to show emotion, Shaw asked a question directly relating to the Willie Horton incident: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Dukakis responded: “No, I don’t, Bernard. And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty all my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” Dukakis struck out on a potential homerun pitch by appearing to lack emotion even when offered a hypothetical question that involved his wife.

At the end of debates, candidates are expected to shake hands. However, in 1988 Bush used the handshake to his advantage. Because he was much taller than Dukakis, Bush hung on to his opponent’s hand, relishing the opportunity to appear to tower over his opponent.

Lesson: The public wants to get to know their candidates as people and it is important for candidates to make a profound, emotional connection with the voters. The Governor’s calm demeanor seemed too distant for many voters.

#6 – The zinger

1984, Walter Mondale (D) vs. Ronald Reagan (R)

By the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term in the White House, questions began to surface about whether age and the demands of the office had taken their toll on the oldest president in history. Reagan was working only a few hours a day and had been embarrassed by several “forgetful” moments. As such, his campaign knew the age question would be raised during the debates. Sure enough, when the question arose Reagan answered it with great wit, delivering another of his famous one-liners: “I want you to know 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.”

Even Reagan’s opponent, Walter Mondale, had to laugh at the funny answer. But more importantly, when everyone stopped laughing, the issue at hand had been forgotten. Moreover, even though Mondale had gotten the best of Reagan during the debate, that one line was the moment many media outlets chose to feature in their coverage of the campaign. Thus, it gave the impression to those who had not watched the debate that Reagan had won it.

Lesson: One great line can flip the perception of who won or lost the debate

#5 – The smack down

1988, Lloyd Bensten (D) vs. Dan Quayle (R)

The vice presidential debate of 1988 is memorable because it featured one of the most decisive one-liners in American political history. When George Bush picked Dan Quayle as his vice presidential running mate, many questioned whether Quayle was fit for the job. The rap on Quayle was that he was an intellectual lightweight who preferred golfing to hard work. During the vice presidential debate, Quayle, who even slightly resembled former president and senator, John Kennedy, tried to defend his limited service and record by noting: “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.”

While this was true, Quayle’s opponent, Lloyd Bensten, took advantage of the remark by offering his own comparison of Quayle to Kennedy: “I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Poor Quayle was speechless and looked like the little animal in the headlights, not knowing what to do. After an awkward pause, Quayle tried to allege that the comment was unfair, but he was the one who raised the comparison in the first place. Quayle never recovered his composure.

Lesson: Candidates must be careful not to “walk right into” a line of questioning or attack by their opponent.

#4 – He said what?

1976, Jimmy Carter (D) vs. Gerald Ford (R)

Because there were no presidential debates in 1964, 1968 and 1972, the 1976 debates were watched with great interest. The debate also occurred during the height of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Therefore, as expected, questions about the Cold War were asked of the candidates.

Shockingly, when Gerald Ford was asked about Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, he answered: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” The problem, of course, was that there was complete Soviet domination and Ford had been president for two years of that period. Everyone had a nervous chuckle at Ford’s expense. The faux pas may have cost Ford the election, as 1972 was a very close race.

Lesson: Gerald Ford was no dummy. He was a graduate of the University of Michigan and Yale Law School, and had spent a long career in the U.S. House of Representatives, even rising to serve as the Republican leader. However, in politics, perception is often reality. Ford’s inarticulate and inaccurate comment gave the impression he did not know what he was talking about.

#3 – He didn’t get it

1992, George Bush (R) vs. Bill Clinton (D) vs. Ross Perot (Reform/Independent)

The second presidential debate of 1992, held on Oct. 15, was noteworthy for many reasons. It was the first time such a televised debate featured three candidates. (Ross Perot, a third-party candidate, had qualified for the debate.) It was also a town hall-style debate where the candidates sat on high stools and answered questions directly from the audience.

A decisive moment occurred when an African-American woman in the audience asked President George Bush how the national debt has “personally affected” his life. Bush started to give a generic answer, but the woman interrupted him, saying that she wanted to know how it impacted his life. Bush seemed lost and said, “I’m not sure I get it. Help me with this question and I’ll try to answer it.” The back-and-forth continued, with the woman repeating herself and wondering how a president could respond to such an economic problem if he did not feel the pain of it. Bush became a little defensive and suggested the questioner thought that just because he “has means” he didn’t feel the recession. He even awkwardly noted that he had once attended a black church where he read the bulletin and learned that young girls were getting pregnant!

At that moment, Bill Clinton stood and walked out into the audience and talked directly to the woman who had asked the question. He told her that, as the governor of a state hard hit by the Bush economy, “I’ve seen what’s happened in this last four years… When people in my state lose their jobs there’s a good chance I’ll know many of them.”

Lesson: Bush came across as out of touch with average Americans, whereas Clinton made a profound connection to them with his answer. A president must understand his countrymen’s concerns and Bush just made matters worse when, while Clinton was talking to the audience, he was caught on camera looking at his watch (as if to say, “When does this thing end!”). The moment contributed to the ongoing joke that Clinton’s unofficial campaign motto should be: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

#2 – TV matters

1960, John Kennedy (D) vs. Richard Nixon (R)

On Sept. 26, 1960, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon met for the first of four debates. That initial debate marked the first general election presidential debate in history. It was also the first nationally-televised debate. Although the candidates were relatively evenly matched in their comments, those who listened to the debate on radio felt that Nixon had won, whereas those who watched it on television believed Kennedy was the winner.

What explained the difference? Quite simply, Kennedy looked good on television and Nixon did not. Nixon had recently been hospitalized with a serious knee injury and he also had the flu. He was therefore pale, looked washed out, and had lost 20 pounds, which left his suit hanging off his shoulders. Moreover, Nixon had rejected makeup, had beard stubble, and was a naturally heavy sweater. Under the hot studio lights and the stress of a national debate, Nixon ended up dabbing the sweat off his face with a handkerchief.

Kennedy, on the other hand, was tanned and had the best makeup, hairdo and suit money could buy. He was also relaxed and comfortable on television, which contrasted favorably to Nixon’s obvious discomfort.

Lesson: Image matters!

#1 – Clash of the Titans

1858, Stephen Douglas (D) vs. Abraham Lincoln (R)

Though the debates in 1858 were for a seat in the U.S. Senate and not the presidency, the backdrop for them was nothing less than the future of the nation. With the country facing disunion and war, Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln met in seven debates across the state of Illinois. Douglas, short and round in stature and known as “The Little Giant,” was a celebrated orator and defender of slavery. Lincoln, tall and lanky, was the new challenger offering a different vision for the nation. As though the debates were not sufficiently dramatic, it happened also that Lincoln and Douglas both had courted the same woman – Mary Todd, who ended up marrying Lincoln.

From around the country, people came to hear these two grand orators and newspapers far and wide sent stenographers to record every word. And they were not disappointed. In a day when long speeches were expected, the format was that one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, the other candidate for 90 minutes, and the first candidate closed for an additional 30 minutes.

The main theme in the debates was slavery. Lincoln argued that the Declaration of Independence, with the promise that “all men are created equal,” applied to slaves. Lincoln demonstrated his oratorical prowess, brilliantly using metaphor such as “a house divided,” when he stated, “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” He also connected with people through homespun wit and humor, such as when he claimed that one of Douglas’s arguments was as thin as “soup made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death” or when he compared Douglas’s evasion of a point to the cloud of ink from a cuttlefish.

Lesson: Though Lincoln lost the Senate seat, in losing, the nation won because the people could not forget this eloquent man from the prairie. Two years later they elected him president!

More on Watson

Robert Watson, a professor of American Studies at Lynn University, is one of the foremost experts and authors on first ladies, presidents, and Florida politics and voting issues. He has published more than 30 books on American politics and history.

In this role, Watson is frequently interviewed by local and national TV, print and radio media outlets, including CNN, MSNBC, USA Today and The New York Times, addressing topics surrounding the first ladies of today, yesterday and tomorrow, how history may judge former President Bush (and the war on terrorism), how past White House scandals have not affected the nation, the accomplishments and criticisms of President Obama, the deficit and other political issues and policies.