Looking Back at Classic Political Debates

With only one more debate to go before Election Day, HUMAN EVENTS offers a look at some highlights (and lowlights) of previous campaign debates.

1858: Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas

They weren’t running for President, but the Lincoln-Douglas debates set the standard for a lively and timely discussion of the key issues of the day. Douglas went on to win the Illinois Senate seat, but the debates pushed Lincoln into the public eye and set up his presidential victory in 1860. The debates were held with no moderator or questioners and were closely followed by newspapers across the nation due to the focus on the slavery issue.

1960: Vice President Richard M. Nixon (R.) vs. Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy (D.)

The first televised debate in presidential history was pivotal in deciding the ultimate winner. Nixon had been hospitalized days before the debate. During the debate, he looked pale and sickly, had a five o’clock shadow, and refused makeup.

Kennedy, by contrast, was telegenic and seemed at ease and confident. Over 80 million people watched the debate. According to pollsters, people who watched on TV thought Kennedy had won, while those who heard it on the radio believed Nixon had done better.
Kennedy got a bump in the polls and went on to win a close election, 49.72% to 49.55%.

1976: President Gerald Ford (R.) vs. Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter (D.)

During their second debate on October 6, President Ford made one of the greatest gaffes in politic history when he said: “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration….”

“I don’t believe … the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous: It has its own territorial integrity and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.”
Ford, who had been gaining on Carter in the polls before the debate, saw his momentum blunted and he lost the election 50% to 48%.

1976: Vice Presidential debate, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole (R.) vs. Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale (D.)

Bob Dole, who was added to the Ford ticket primarily for his acerbic attack-dog wit, didn’t help the Republican cause when, no matter how correctly, he charged that the Democratic Party was responsible for all of the wars the U.S. had fought in the 20th Century.

1980: Former California Gov. Ronald Reagan (R.) vs. President Jimmy Carter

Carter had refused to participate in the first debate because the League of Women Voters had allowed independent candidate Rep. John Anderson of Illinois to participate.

The second debate — held without Anderson — occurred only a week before the election, with Carter showing a slim lead in the polls.

Carter’s strategy was to paint Reagan as an extremist who would cause racial divisions and pit young against old. So, during the debate, he charged that Reagan was against Medicare and improvements in health care.

“There you go again,” Reagan said, shaking his head and taking the wind out of Carter’s charges.

The debate was also notable for Carter’s assertion that he got advice from his 12-year-old daughter Amy about the importance of nuclear weapon cuts.

Reagan delivered the coup de grace in his closing remarks by asking: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Reagan won the election 49% to 41%.

1984: President Ronald Reagan (R.) vs. Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale (D.)

President Reagan did not perform up to his usual “Great Communicator” standard during the first debate — raising concerns about his age by making several verbal gaffes and finishing up with a rambling closing.

But the Gipper set up his 49 state electoral land slide during the second debate by neutralizing the age issue with this quip: “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.”

Reagan won, 58.5% to 40.4%.

1988: Vice President George Bush (R.) vs. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D.)

Dukakis probably lost the election during the second debate when he was asked by Bernard Shaw of CNN: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Already under the gun for being soft on crime because of his furlough of violent prisoner Willie Horton, Dukakis, who went on to lose the election, 53.1 percent to 45.5 percent, gave a lengthy, rambling response where he talked about drugs in schools, called for a “hemispheric summit” to deal with drugs, touted his success in fighting crime in Massachusetts but never showed any emotion about his “murdered wife.”

1988: Vice Presidential Debate, Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle (R.) vs. Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D.)

When news anchor Tom Brokaw asked Dan Quayle to “cite the experience that you had in Congress … if it fell to you to become President of the United States, as it has to so many Vice Presidents just in the last 25 years or so," Quayle compared his experience to that of other Veeps.

“I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of Vice President of this country," Quayle said, “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency,” Although Quayle was absolutely accurate, he had set himself up for one of the all-time great putdowns in political history.

Lloyd Bentsen replied: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”.

1992: President George H.W. Bush (R.) vs. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D.) vs. Ross Perot (I.)

Bill Clinton seemed to enjoy the town-hall debate format. President Bush obviously did not.

When someone in the audience asked about the impact of the national debt, President Bush responded: “I’m not sure I get it.’’

Bill Clinton had no such problem. “Tell me how it has affected you?’ Do you know people who have lost their jobs and lost their homes?” he asked, trying to make voters think he felt their pain.

And when President Bush kept looking at his watch, his reelection bid was also on borrowed time and he lost, 42.9 percent to 37.1 percent.

1992: Vice Presidential debate: Vice President Dan Quayle (R.) vs. Tennessee Sen. Al Gore (D.) vs. Retired Adm. James B. Stockdale (I.)

This debate was notable mainly for the dazed look of Adm. Stockdale when he introduced himself to America by asking: “Who am I? Why am I here?”

2000: Vice President Al Gore (D.) vs. Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R.)

After eight years of relative peace and prosperity, this election was Al Gore’s to lose.

And his performance in the debates helped him do just that in what turned out to be a historically tight election. Gore lost narrowly in the Electoral College, after gaining a 48.3 percent to 47.8 percent edge in the popular vote.

Gore noticeably sighed and rolled his eyes while Bush was speaking.

He spouted policy wonk phrases (“Dingell-Norwood, Dingell-Norwood”) and at one point seemed to aggressively approach Bush

2004: President George W. Bush (R.) vs. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D.)

During the first debate, much was made of Bush’s scowling while Kerry was talking. During the second debate, Bush at one point quipped: “That answer made me want to scowl.”

Pollsters said their data showed that Sen. John Kerry won all three debates, but it didn’t help him win the presidency. Bush, 50.6%. Kerry, 48.1%.