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No-bama Drama: Putting the Denver Debate in Historical Context

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960.

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960. Credit: National Park Service. PD.

On Sunday, October 14, a special edition of ABC’s This Week, produced with the Miller Center, focused on the question, "Do presidential debates change elections?" Today’s guest post provides a scholarly response to the question.  

            Traveling for a lecture trip on the night of Election 2012’s first presidential debate, I wasn’t among the nearly 70 million viewers of the event.  But as I raced through the Charlotte airport, I glimpsed a gaggle of fellow travelers gathered around a restaurant television.  Pausing for a few minutes, I noticed that President Obama looked uncharacteristically uncomfortable, with his eyes turned downward toward the podium, while on the split screen Governor Romney animatedly presented his case.  Little did I realize that my instant analysis of the debate’s image would become the accepted postmortem.  Whereas the president had earned the moniker “No Drama Obama” for his unflappable campaign persona in 2008, four years later opponents and supporters alike concluded that he was missing in action on the Denver stage: No Obama had become the drama.

            It remains to be seen whether that lackluster performance will contribute to his loss of a second term, but the odds in his favor have lowered, along with his standing in the polls, since his Rocky Mountain breakdown.  In 2008 the young senator had been compared favorably with John F. Kennedy and had received endorsements from both JFK’s daughter Caroline and his brother Teddy.  For the first debate in 2012’s contest, Obama could have used the support of parents like Rose and Joe Kennedy.  Jack’s devoutly Catholic mother prayed the entire day of Jack’s first presidential debate in hopes that her intercessions would boost her son over Richard Nixon, the more experienced debater.  She was thrilled when her prayers were answered!  After his victorious performance, JFK phoned his father who gave him a rave review.  Jack turned to his alter-ego, Ted Sorensen, and explained, “If I had slipped and fallen flat on the floor, my dad would have said, ‘The way you picked yourself up was terrific!’”

            In that first televised 1960 presidential debate, Kennedy benefited from being the challenger to Eisenhower’s presidency, and the fact that the Fitzgerald and Kennedy families had been producing successful political images for three generations didn’t hurt either.  Simply standing on the same stage as the incumbent president or his vice-president can level the field for the challenger, as in the cases of Carter (1976), Reagan (1980), Clinton (1992), George W. Bush (2000), and Kerry (2004).  According to communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, challengers who are deemed too inexperienced or risky also benefit from the first debate by displaying their knowledge and portraying their ideas as mainstream.  Joe Kennedy reportedly told his son, “It’s not what you are, it’s what people think you are.”  If they think you are an informed, moderate representative of their interests, you may earn their vote just by countering any negative images that they might have of you.  Mondale (1984) and Dole (1996) simply couldn’t extinguish views that their policies were too extreme, and their personalities failed to outshine Reagan’s and Clinton’s charisma.

            Presidential candidates can and do use debates to reinforce positive messages.  Clinton (1992 and 1996) seized opportunities, especially in town-hall formats, to present his empathetic understanding of the economy’s impact on average Americans.  And Obama (2008) bolstered his image as a cool-headed statesman, a particularly soothing trait as the economy collapsed in the midst of that fall’s campaign and its debates.  But this year the president’s incumbency gives his opponent the challenger’s advantages.  And Obama’s Colorado collapse only confirmed his opponents’ theme that he is an “empty suit” incapable of producing desired outcomes and, worse, that he is a weak leader.  Inexplicably, the president neglected to defend his successes that might have stymied such deflating narratives.

            If the president should lose, we may not discover the explanation for his devastating appearance at the first debate, until his presidential memoir or oral history is released.  It will be especially revealing to know if and how the president and his advisors changed their game plan for the second and third debates.  If they don’t reverse the losing narrative he inadvertently created about himself on October 3, Mitt Romney may parlay the lessons of presidential debate history into a victory on November 6.

Dr. Barbara A. Perry is a Senior Fellow in the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia.  You can follow her on Twitter @tweetbriar.

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