Presidential debates rarely change anyone’s mind and are further diminished by the lack of a scoreboard. Tonight’s debate probably will be no exception, so don’t expect a knockout. Here are some thoughts, however, to get us revved for the big game.
The incumbent’s first debate usually doesn’t go well. Many attribute that to the incumbent not being practiced while the challenger normally has multiple primary debates. That’s true this year. But remember, Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan both had memorable bad first debates and went on to win.
Donald Trump’s three 2016 debates with Hillary Clinton were filled with memorable moments, although they didn’t have a great impact. In the first one, Trump questioned U.S. intelligence findings that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee saying, “It could also be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”
In the second one, Trump loomed large over Clinton as she spoke and seemingly followed her around the stage. Trump referred to Clinton as “the devil” and said his administration would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her use of a private computer server as secretary of state.
In the third debate, Trump refused to say if he’d accept the results of the election if Clinton won, which is much like his refusal this cycle to commit to a peaceful transition if Biden is elected. He said, “We’ll have to see what happens.”
And so, we will.
I believe I’ve watched every nationally televised presidential debate in U.S. history, including the original 1960 Democratic Party primary debate between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. That was broadcast here in Charleston by WCHS-TV from its Virginia Street studios. Notably, it was co-sponsored by The Charleston Gazette, with late publisher Ned Chilton as a panelist.
That primary debate was so successful that Kennedy challenged Richard Nixon to one in the general election. In that first, nationally televised presidential debate, Nixon treated it as a “radio” debate and not only showed up with a “five o’clock shadow,” but wore a light suit, and kept looking side to side at the panelists, rather than straight into the camera, among other blunders. Kennedy opened a 48-43 poll lead after that, but it tightened later.
That’s much of what’s popularly known about debates. You might not realize that it wasn’t until 1976 before another occurred, between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Their first-of-three series was interrupted by a technical problem, leaving both candidates silently standing at their podiums for 27 minutes before finishing. Ford later said neither candidate would sit, for fear of looking weak, but that both wanted to do so.
Besides the Kennedy-Nixon encounter, there was but one other debate considered decisive, and that was the 1980 debate between incumbent Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan. This single debate occurred seven days before the election. Many voters had decided to fire Jimmy Carter, but they weren’t sure Reagan was a suitable replacement. His performance soothed many, and he went on to win.
Today, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, only 3% of us are undecided, but that’s enough to decide this election. Considering the margin of error, the race could be as close as 48% for Biden to 46% for Trump.
Battlegrounds Florida and Arizona are tightening, typical as we get closer to the election. And that puts pressure on both to do well.
So, watch for whom appears more vibrant. Biden is fighting the “old age” label, as he is 77. Less has been made of Trump’s age, 74, meaning both are older than Ronald Reagan, who was 73 at the start of his second term.
This Trump-Biden debate undoubtedly will have its moments. Whether they matter is another question.
In the meantime, it’s time to pass a law requiring at least three presidential debates and to compel candidates to disclose 10 years worth of tax returns. Neither is required, you know.