Although the trend in presidential debates is that they don’t affect elections’ outcomes by much, there is plenty of evidence that shows how debates have significant impacts in other ways. Debates prove useful to undecided voters, often helping voters decide who to vote for on Election Day. Throughout the last 60 years, crucial debate moments have changed presidential campaigns and had essential effects on changing the American public’s perception of many presidential candidates.
Using Debates to Turn Heads
Former President Ronald Reagan was considered a master of debate mostly for two critical moments in his debates against then-President Jimmy Carter and his Vice President Walter Mondale. Carter’s debate strategy revolved around attacking Reagan on his political record. Reagan’s immediate joking response of “There you go again” before responding to these attacks seemed insignificant but contrasted immensely with Carter’s severe, almost angry attack. In this simple move, Reagan had corrected the record on an opponent’s attack while making that opponent seem serious and ill-tempered to viewers. After the debate, Reagan masterfully used his closing statement to stare into the camera and ask Americans whether the last four years under Carter had been getting better or worse for them. A simple question asked to the viewers demonstrated President Carter’s failures in foreign policy, economic policy, and domestic issues throughout his term in less than a few minutes.
Years later, when Reagan was running for re-election, his critics criticized his age and mental ability, especially after a terrible first debate against Carter’s Vice President Walter Mondale. Reagan lost his train of thought often and had very few significant moments throughout the night, with most of his responses mentioning statistics and numbers that left viewers disinterested. The media began to question Reagan’s readiness for the job publicly. In possibly the most humorous moment in presidential debate history, he joked about Mondale’s youth and inexperience in response to a question about his age in the second debate. Both candidates’ campaign managers mentioned that Reagan had immediately won the debate at that moment, and he would win the election in another landslide victory soon after.
Debate Image and Why It Matters
One of the more underrated aspects of presidential debates is the image that candidates present to viewers at home. Presidential campaigns negotiate for weeks on the specifics of debate circumstances. Background colors, podium height, distance apart, and resting positions are critical to the image a candidate gives. In the first-ever televised presidential debate, Richard Nixon gave off an uninspiring image to potential voters with a suit that didn’t fit. He blended in with the background, his skinny appearance after leaving the hospital made him look small, and his decision not to wear makeup made him look sick and tired on stage. After the debate, polls showed Kennedy take the lead over Nixon, with viewers of the debate believing Kennedy had won. In contrast, listeners on the radio felt Nixon had won the debate.
Uninspiring and awful images of candidates have persisted in various presidential debates. From Michael Dukakis appearing emotionless in every debate moment, George H.W. Bush anxiously checking his watch while being asked a question, Al Gore sighing out loud at George W. Bush’s responses to questions from the moderator, and Donald Trump pacing around Hillary Clinton, image means everything. They can project power, toughness, anxiousness, exasperation, and many more traits that viewers quickly pick up on. Although we like to believe that elections are always about choosing the most qualified candidate, our internal biases often lead us to vote for the candidate we relate with. Debates form images in voters’ minds, and while this effect is hard to put into statistics, it plays an essential role in deciding the winner of the election.