By Eric Thurm
First off, apologies to the imaginary people who were patiently awaiting Debate Night as a regular feature. Two Wednesdays ago, I was participating in a mock presidential debate at school that ate up all my time when I would have otherwise been finishing up the 1988 installment. We should have smooth sailing from now until we’re caught up with the 2012 debates.
Second, and before diving into 1988, let’s take a minute to look at the 2012 presidential debates thus far. The second debate hasn’t happened as of this writing, so it’s possible President Obama has completely rebounded by the time it goes live, but for now Romney has benefited enormously from the debates, which have precipitated a real swing in the polls. Why, exactly, is difficult to say. There wasn’t a specific moment that suggested doom for President Obama, like Gerald Ford’s error in 1976. Instead, it seemed more reminiscent of 1960: completely different people showed up to debate, and one was far more energetic than the other.
It’s a bit too early to tell, but it seems like the tightening of the race is attributable at least in part to a phenomenon that’s cropped up in several of the debate years leading up to 1988. When a challenger is on the same debate stage as an incumbent, it’s easier for voters to see them as a real option for president. That flattening effect explains some of the reason why incumbents refused to debate between 1960 and 1976, why Jimmy Carter was so well served by his debates with Ford, and why Ronald Reagan jumped in the polls after facing off against a beleaguered Carter.
Let’s look at some of what made 1988 another step toward Obama/Romney. The 1988 debates introduced one of the last structural changes to the modern debate format—the instant “audience response.” In October 1988, the Los Angeles Times reported on the “Tell-Back” system used to gauge reaction to the debate. A small studio audience of 90 watched the debate with dials hooked up to computers. Turning the dial left indicated the viewer liked the Democratic candidate, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis; turning it right showed they liked the Republican candidate, Vice President George H.W. Bush. The graph of overall reaction was placed on viewers’ screens in real time.
Tom Westbrook, the former TV reporter and Gonzaga University professor who invented Tell-Back, intended for the system to negate the function of “spin doctors” and punditry. In much the same way as the debates themselves, however, the supposedly informative instant feedback mechanism can be counterproductive. Pundits use the system to give instantaneous analysis and “facts” based on a small sample size for the same sort of spin Westbrook wanted to stop. This hybridization of the informative experience of the debates with post-debate punditry is representative of both television and politics. The interaction between the two is now almost completely recognizable as we approach the 2012 election.
Tell-Back wasn’t the only attempt to shake up the political process during the 1988 election. After Walter Mondale’s loss in 1984, the Democratic Party was looking for a new way forward. Though that naturally suggested Gary Hart, Mondale’s closest competitor in 1984, he was pushed out of the race after a sex scandal. Dukakis emerged from a competitive primary field, including candidates who eventually chose not to run (New York governor Mario Cuomo, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and future president/then-governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton) and those who did (Missouri representative Dick Gephardt, Tennessee senator and future vice-president Al Gore, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson). After being nominated by Clinton, Dukakis selected Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate.
Bush also emerged from a relatively competitive primary. Although he was the sitting vice president and committed to continuing the policies of President Reagan as the representative of the Republican establishment, several candidates attempted to challenge Bush’s candidacy. Kansas senator and future party nominee Bob Dole, televangelist Pat Robertson, New York congressman Jack Kemp (Paul Ryan’s former boss and mentor), and former Illinois congressman/White House adviser Donald Rumsfeld all competed for the nomination. Though Dole and Robertson had strong showings in some of the early primaries, Bush’s overbearing organizational superiority allowed him to prevail. Both candidates were in fact the result of serious financial and organizational advantage, rather than a groundswell of support for either. As he accepted the nomination, Vice President Bush famously pledged that there would be no new taxes. It would be a good guess that many people in need of IRS tax relief repeat that moment in their day dreams, wishing.
The 1988 general election campaign was filled with public relations disasters for the Dukakis campaign going into the debates. In addition to the infamous Willie Horton ad and the “Snoopy Incident” in which Dukakis attempted to stage a photo op in a tank, much of the election centered on the Bush campaign’s attempt to stage a referendum on Dukakis rather than Bush or the end of the Reagan administration. Dukakis fired his deputy field director (current CNN commentator Donna Brazile) for spreading the story that Bush had had an affair with his assistant Jennifer Fitzgerald. It’s no surprise, then, that the biggest moment from the 1988 debates was a horrifying disaster for Dukakis.
Before we get there, though, let’s take a look at what everyone remembers from that year’s vice presidential debate. In the only encounter between Bentsen and Bush’s running mate, Indiana senator Dan Quayle, much of the debate focused on Quayle’s lack of experience and whether or not he was qualified to be president (echoes of Sarah Palin). During an answer on the subject, Quayle compared his congressional experience (two terms in the House and one full term in the Senate) to that of John F. Kennedy. Bentsen replied with one of the most famous single quotations in American politics:
Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.
The Washington Post’s next day headline read: “Bentsen Bags A Quayle.”
There are two important takeaways from Bentsen’s dismantling of Quayle, though both are lessons candidates in debates have learned time and again. First, Quayle had been explicitly instructed not to do anything like compare himself to Kennedy, and was told time and again to “not trust himself” and fall back on well-worn campaign rhetoric. The moments voters remember from debates tend to be the ones that go off-book. But second, the polls did not move following the debate at all. Presidential debates have some power to change voters’ minds, but vice presidential debates? Almost never. That’s something to keep in mind when evaluating the effect of the Biden/Ryan debate (which I still haven’t seen).
At the very beginning of the second debate, Dukakis was asked by CNN’s Bernard Shaw whether he would support the death penalty for someone who had raped and murdered his wife, Kitty. Dukakis’s response was canned and wooden, focused on attacking Bush and discussing the War On Crime. The answer doesn’t come off as awful as it should on first watch, because Dukakis gets so bogged down in the answer that it’s easy to forget what the question actually was.
No, I don’t, Bernard. And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of 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. We’ve done so in my own state.
Within the next few exchanges, George H.W. Bush actually came off as the folksy one in the contest, an extraordinary political feat. Dukakis’s lack of conviction or passion on a question that, while perhaps more about his policy position than personal feelings, screamed for a heartfelt response justified his nickname: The Ice Man.
One of the panelists, Margaret Warner of Newsweek, touched on this theme directly in a question some minutes later, asking Dukakis why he had “won the first debate on intellect, and yet… lost it on heart.” Though that question seems like an awfully bold declarative statement from a theoretically impartial moderator, it seems to capture the attitude many operatives, journalists, and voters held toward the Dukakis campaign, exemplified by the bungled response to the Kitty Dukakis question.
In fact, Shaw later admitted that he had been worried about being called out for asking a too-easy question in an effort to get Dukakis to show his emotional side. Though his next question for Bush was much tougher (asking whether Bush would have been comfortable with Quayle becoming president were he to die before inauguration), Shaw needn’t have worried. The press coverage coming out of the debate focused on little else, and Bush slowly started to rise in the polls after that debate through his victory.
Bush’s constant refrain of “liberal” and “left” when referring to Dukakis might be the only other notable story out of the 1988 debates—the first debate was so boring and uneventful, ABC’s and CBS’s lead stories the next night were about a Canadian athlete’s possible steroid use. But Bush beat the “liberal” drum so hard that during the second debate, when ABC News’s Ann Compton asked Bush to say something nice about Dukakis, Dukakis seemed genuinely surprised that Bush’s answer did not include the words “left” or “liberal.”
How did the “Tell-Back” audiences respond to the flat first debate and everything following Dukakis’s enormous error? The time delay for voters realizing how blank that first answer was turned out to be important—the instant feedback crowd gave the debate to Dukakis, 50 percent to 30 percent. That’s in contrast to an ABC News instant feedback poll, which declared Bush the winner 49 percent to 33 percent. Sometimes paying too much attention isn’t a good thing.
Previously on Debate Night: Reagan/Mondale, 1984