When Presidential Debates Matter

Commentary by Andrew Kohut of The Pew Research Center

Campaign 2000 has all the earmarks of an election that could turn on the outcome of the presidential debates. Historically, two factors have distinguished the crucial debates from the rest. First, debates have had the greatest impact in close races, or in campaigns where the lead switched back and forth. Second, debates have helped voters decide when they had unresolved questions about the candidates' personal qualities. Obviously, the upcoming debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush fill the bill on both counts.

The 40-year history of televised presidential debates is replete with memorable moments, from Ronald Reagan's famous rejoinder of "there you go again" during his 1980 debate with President Carter, to President Bush's well-publicized peek at his wristwatch eight years ago. In most cases, these events have not affected the result. But when the race is close at the time of the debates even small changes in the polls can have a huge impact.

In 1960 and 1980, like today, there was no clear front-runner when the debates began. But John Kennedy's performance in 1960s first debate gave him a slight lead over Vice President Nixon, which he never relinquished. Ronald Reagan trailed Carter by 45-42 percent three days before their Oct. 28 debate. But after a strong performance in that campaign's only debate, Reagan wiped away Carter's lead and subsequently surged to victory (see chart).

In the elections of 1984 and 1996, incumbent presidents (Reagan and Clinton) came into the debates with solid leads, while their opponents were seeking some badly needed momentum. But neither Walter Mondale in 1984 nor Bob Dole 12 years later were able to produce the requisite miracles; Clinton retained his pre-debate edge and Reagan added to his advantage despite some stumbles in the first debate.

In the month prior to the 1976 debates, President Ford had successfully cut into Jimmy Carter's substantial lead. But Ford's gaffe in that year's second debate when he claimed that Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviets slowed his surge. In 1988, Michael Dukakis, who was already slipping in the polls, made his situation worse with his performance in that year's second debate. Dukakis's campaign never recovered from his seemingly cold response to a question about whether he would abandon his opposition to the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. Finally, the 1992 debates had a limited impact on the support of the major candidates (Clinton and Bush), but they enabled Ross Perot to become a viable third-party challenger.

In general, success or failure in presidential debates centers on the public's perception of the candidates' personal qualities, rather than the issues. Kennedy's superior television image in 1960, Reagan's ability in 1980 to defuse doubts about his judgment and competence, and Bush's apparent sense of detachment in 1992 are some of the notable personal impressions that emerged from these debates. Issues, by and large, played a secondary role.

In the current campaign, questions abound about the candidate's personal strengths and weaknesses. Although voters give Al Gore a decisive edge on top issues like Social Security, healthcare and the economy, Bush is seen as the stronger leader and is more highly regarded than the vice president on some key character traits. Yet many voters harbor doubts about the Texas governor's experience and knowledge of the issues.

The latest national polls show that Gore's post-Labor Day lead has eroded or completely disappeared, depending on which survey you look at. Since the outset of the campaign, voters have gone back and forth between these candidates particularly the large pool of swing voters. The stakes in these debates are enormous, as anyone even remotely familiar with the elections of 20 years ago and 40 years ago can attest.

Andrew Kohut is an independent pollster. For more of his polling and analysis visit the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press which he directs.
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