In the most recent issue of Washington Monthly, John Sides raises the question, “Do Presidential Debates Really Matter?” and provides a response in the subheading, concluding that past debates did not significantly alter election outcomes.
Sides backs this argument with a wealth of polling data from elections traditionally thought to be influenced by debates, such as the 1960 and 1980 elections, where the polling data doesn’t demonstrate any substantial post-debate “game-changing” moments.
This perspective aligns with a broader trend in political science, aiming to diminish the significance of punditry and analyses rooted in “message” and “narrative,” often seen in cable news discussions.
In essence, it is much more predictable to forecast election outcomes based on data and prevailing economic fundamentals than relying on the sometimes elusive qualities of political campaigns.
However, this doesn’t discount the importance of presidential debates entirely. On occasion, they can offer voters genuinely new insights and unveil aspects of the candidates that were previously unclear.
Debates can crystallize a particular image of a candidate, either working in their favor or against them. Moreover, they can send messages to both ardent party supporters and influential elites whose backing holds great sway in national campaigns.
The influence of elites becomes most pronounced in primary debates, and it’s worth noting that primary debates are a significant omission from Sides’s analysis.
While he rightly emphasizes that general election debates typically don’t lead to substantial shifts in public opinion, primary debates can be more potent.
There are several reasons for the limited impact of general election debates, primarily because the candidates are already well-known, making the debates less effective for informing the public.
However, in primary debates, where candidates may not have as much recognition, they can seize the opportunity to gain exposure and land significant blows.
A classic example is Ronald Reagan’s successful “I paid for this microphone” moment in 1980. More recently, Rick Perry’s campaign suffered a severe setback due to his unforgettable “oops” moment during a primary debate last fall.
In a nutshell, the Democratic primary debates in 1984 played a significant role. The field was fairly competitive, with Ted Kennedy initially leading the pack after his strong showing in 1980.
However, when Kennedy chose not to run, the field narrowed down to four substantial candidates: Reverend Jesse Jackson, former astronaut and Ohio senator John Glenn, Colorado senator Gary Hart, and former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Although Mondale began as the favorite and maintained his front-runner status throughout the primaries (spoiler alert: he secured the nomination), the other candidates, particularly Hart, gave him a run for his money.
Hart claimed second place in the Iowa primary and emerged as the primary alternative to Mondale, a bit like Barack Obama sidelining John Edwards in 2008 after winning Iowa. Prior to the debates, Hart secured victories in several more primaries.
Mondale ultimately possessed more enduring advantages as the consensus candidate of the party, but the debates offered him a significant opportunity to challenge Hart and solidify his support among undecided Democrats.
Before we delve into the pivotal moment of the 1984 primary debates, which was arguably the most critical juncture of the entire election cycle, let’s examine a more typical exchange.
During one of the debates, the candidates were posed with a hypothetical scenario: what action they would take if an unidentified Czechoslovakian plane were to enter U.S. airspace at 2 a.m., headed directly for Colorado Springs—a strategically vital location for the American missile command.
This question was reminiscent of the incident involving Korean Airlines Flight 007 the previous year.
The airliner had strayed far from its intended path, trespassing into Soviet airspace, and was subsequently shot down by the Soviet military, resulting in the tragic loss of all 269 people on board, including Congressman Lawrence McDonald of Georgia.
KAL007 symbolized the complex foreign policy challenges the nation faced during the Cold War era and underscored the perceived vulnerability of Democratic candidates on such issues.
Once again, the demeanor and the nature of responses from the candidates are strikingly different from what we typically see in contemporary political discourse.
Hart’s response, as well as Mondale’s, can be described as somewhat flippant, and as Glenn points out, their approach appears to be quite ridiculous. Hart’s reaction to the hypothetical scenario sheds light on how these candidates perceived the debates.
He defends himself by emphasizing that the question allowed them to see inside the plane, but the primary purpose of these debates is to showcase readiness for the presidency, not just engaging in a debate as an academic exercise or game.
In debate as an academic activity, focusing on technicalities may be advantageous for winning, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to persuading, which becomes evident in the general election.
Part of the allure of this exchange, which, it’s essential to note, didn’t turn out to be particularly pivotal, is the way it feels like a casual conversation at times.
There’s an element of an “old boys’ club” atmosphere, which does somewhat lessen the stakes.
While it’s tempting to attribute the current state of debates to the evolution of the political process, it’s also worth considering the impact of television.
These debates, at least to me, seem less engaging than their contemporary counterparts, which often feel like watching individuals navigate a minefield.
It’s worth noting that the trend toward grander television presentations was already taking root in 1984 when you compare shows that concluded that year (like AfterMASH and Happy Days) with those that began (such as Miami Vice and V).
The informality of the debate surrounding the hypothetical Soviet flight stands in stark contrast to the moment that truly resonated with voters.
While we’re not even halfway through the history of televised debates as we know them today, astute candidates like Mondale (and he was indeed shrewd, regardless of any other impressions) were already well aware of the value of delivering a memorable line in a debate.
Mondale used such a retort following one of Hart’s responses, in which Hart emphasized the need for a “New Generation” and called for political change driven by America’s youth—a strategy that would prove highly effective for Bill Clinton in the years to come.
In his rebuttal, Mondale invoked a then-famous Wendy’s advertising campaign that asked consumers, “Where’s the beef?”
Mondale’s “Where’s the beef?” line, like many other memorable campaign moments, effectively encapsulated a widespread criticism of Hart—namely, that his policy proposals lacked substance.
This erosion of Hart’s credibility is even more significant in the context of primary debates. Observe how others reacted: the audience laughed, and the moderator even made a jest, suggesting he’d inform Mondale about the whereabouts of the beef, “on a roll or something.”
Also Read: Debate Night: Ford/Carter, 1976
Hart had the opportunity to respond, but he failed to offer much substantive content, and the energy in the room had dissipated.
Even after watching Hart’s response several times to truly absorb his answer, it’s challenging to stay engaged with his words. Perhaps I just have a short attention span.
Mondale was fortunate that “Where’s the beef?” struck a chord, as he encountered a verbal mix-up within the next 30 seconds that, in the context of 2012, might have triggered a minor campaign cycle.
In explaining the core of his campaign, which, overall, positioned him as the more mature candidate compared to Hart, he stated, “I’m going to stand up for special interest groups.”
Additionally, Mondale enjoyed the advantage of being a much better-known candidate and less susceptible to caricature than Hart.
In primary elections, voters, particularly those within the party’s base, are still acquainting themselves with the candidates, rendering them more vulnerable to broad attacks.
Hart’s fall from grace was the kind of event that is challenging to capture within the narrow framework of Sides’s analysis.
Now, let’s examine 1984 within the context of that analysis, specifically focusing on the general election debates.
During this time, the economy was thriving, despite the Iran-Contra scandal rattling the Reagan administration and Cold War tensions running high.
President Reagan maintained a substantial lead in the polls, consistently holding a double-digit advantage throughout the entire election season.
The Reagan campaign adopted a predominantly positive tone, centering on its “Morning in America” slogan.
While the lack of significant shifts in the polls suggests that the debates had little influence on the election’s outcome, there are still some noteworthy exchanges worth exploring.
I want you to know that 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.
This moment is a perfect illustration of Reagan’s vitality and wit, instantly dispelling any concerns viewers may have had about his age.
It cleverly portrays the question as somewhat absurd and, importantly, it transforms a perceived weakness of Reagan’s into support for one of his most effective lines of attack against Mondale: the notion that the former vice president lacked substantial substance.
It’s akin to those emotionally charged moments in episodes of “The Newsroom” dealing with significant events—everything may seem bleak, and you know it will probably revert to being dire, but that one moment is so impactful that it compels you to continue watching (although this could be just my perspective).
Essentially, whenever you watch a debate and ponder what the candidates are attempting to achieve with their responses, this is it.
Mondale indeed performed well (in fact, he was perceived to have “won” the first debate).
However, as demonstrated in the KAL007 exchange, he often came across more like a high school debater aiming for victory in a state tournament than a political candidate partaking in the pseudo-performance that debates had already become.
Although he appeared to be a worthy adversary for Reagan, he couldn’t overcome the fact, as Reagan repeatedly pointed out, that Americans were better off than they were four years earlier.
While the polls experienced minor shifts after the debates, Reagan’s lead was never in serious jeopardy.
In the end, Mondale suffered a resounding defeat, marking one of the most significant landslides in modern electoral politics, securing only the electoral votes of his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.
Sides doesn’t mention 1984 in his discussion of debates, and there’s a good reason for it. It was a somewhat uneventful year, although not as lackluster as 1976, and the election outcome was never truly in doubt.
However, this doesn’t imply that the debates offered nothing of value. Reagan’s uncharacteristically lackluster performance in the first debate raised the issue of his age, a concern that could have gained significance in the race if Reagan hadn’t responded the way he did.
The debates, in a reversal of momentum, enabled Reagan to transform that potential liability into a surefire guarantee of re-election.
Most notably, Mondale’s tactic of challenging the president’s policies while acknowledging his popularity resonates with the attempts made by Mitt Romney’s campaign to depict President Obama as likable but ineffective.
The power of this criticism connects Mondale’s “Where’s the beef?” moment with Reagan’s response about his age.
A campaign that relies on a somewhat weak (and perhaps too intricate) argument—suggesting that the president is an okay guy but a poor leader or has misguided policies despite a strong economy—tends to face challenges in achieving success.
While the bulk of Sides’ argument, emphasizing that candidates’ success is largely determined by data rather than messaging, is well-supported by electoral history, it’s also plausible that the fortunes of campaigns are shaped by their circumstances.
It’s undeniably tough to campaign against a well-liked and economically successful president. Gaffes and missteps in campaigns have and will continue to reflect these challenges.