Advancing a Free Society

In The First Debate, Incumbents Don't Always Have An "In"

Monday, October 1, 2012

As a viewer, how best to prepare for Wednesday night’s presidential debate?

First, do yourself a favor and ignore the pre-debate spin.

President Obama’s camp would have you believe that Mitt Romney is some kind of Q&A genius. Romney’s camp contends there’s no equal for Obama’s rhetorical skills.

Both belie the obvious: Romney’s had the luxury having gone through Republican debates ad nauseum this year; Obama has the luxury of having gone one-on-one with John McCain. Neither candidate is a debate stranger; neither goes into Wednesday’s event in Denver as a prohibitive favorite.

Second, ask what each candidate has to achieve.

This one’s simple. A good night for Romney could go a long way toward: (a) closing the polls; (b) getting the media off his back; (c) replenishing his campaign war chest. As for Obama: if you believe that show the President leading, then the goal is to play error-free ball on Wednesday night.

Third, gaffes.

Once the debate begins, listen for a misstep with the potency to cloud the election for days afterward – the kind of I’ve-gotta-rewind-my-DVR-and-hear-that-again flub that’s sure to last an e-ternity on YouTube. Examples: Dan Quayle getting verbally slapped in 1988; Michael Dukakis, that same year but in a different debate, speaking with all the passion of a sloth on downers.

All of this said, I’m not watching Romney on Wednesday night as much as I am President Obama. The reason why: recent history suggests the first debate can be trouble for the officeholder.

Here’s a quick scorecard of debate winners of the past three decades, featuring incumbents and challengers.

1980 – The only presidential debate during the general election, and it came on the Tuesday before Election Day. Here’s a transcript and a video of the entire 90-minute debate, including Ronald Reagan’s now-famous “are you better off?” closing argument.  Reagan showed America he wasn’t the scary proposition Jimmy Carter claimed he was; the walk-up broke heavily the GOP’s way. Debate winner: Reagan, the challenger.

1984 – The first Reagan-Mondale debate (Oct. 7 of that year, in Louisville; they’d debate a second time two weeks later) was a surprise: Mondale was the aggressor; Reagan didn’t have a strong night (here’s the entire video). The immediate fallout was Mondale improving, media perception-wise, from candidate without a chance to a more plausible candidate who could hold his own with Reagan. Debate winner: Mondale, the challenger.

1992: The first of the three encounters between the two major-party candidates and Ross Perot occurred on Oct. 11, in St. Louis. All of that year’s debates were compressed in a nine-day window, making the process less forensics and more telanovela). The other oddity: George H.W. Bush, trailing in the polls, had the burden of needing a good night to reverse the election’s course. He didn’t – Bill Clinton playing it safe and low-risk that night (here’s the entire video). Debate winner: Clinton, the challenger.

1996 – The first of two debates between Clinton and Bob Dole occurred on Oct. 6, in Hartford, Ct. (their second encounter would be an Oct. 16 town-hall debate in San Diego). Dole attacked Clinton in a ways that will sound familiar Wednesday night (“I trust people. The President trusts government”). But the perception was a debate that ended in a draw, which meant no change in Clinton’s comfortable lead (here’s the entire video).  Debate winner: Clinton, the incumbent.

2004 – The first of three debates between George W. Bush and John Kerry occurred on Sept. 30, in Miami (topics: foreign policy and homeland security – they’d debate twice more in the next two weeks).  An estimated 62.5 million Americans tuned in to the debate – a 35% increase from 2000. Arguably the loudest buzz coming out of that first debate was a conspiracy theory suggesting that a bulge in the President’s coat pocket meant he was wired to receive helps with his answers. Polls gave Kerry the edge performance-wise; curiously, talking heads downgraded the debate’s importance for Kerry from “a decisive moment” to “we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions”. Translation: they weren’t blown away. Kerry won that night on points; he didn’t change the race’s dynamics. Debate winner: call it a draw.

So there’s my unofficial scorecard of the first incumbent-challenger presidential debates dating back to 1980: Three wins for the challenger; one win for the incumbent; one draw.

But why would this be?

Some attribute it to rust. Romney’s spent 43 hours in 23 separate debates this year, to 0 and 0 for Obama. Toss in the President’s propensity for softball interviews and there’s a chance Obama could walk into the first debate a little out of shape (which is how he looked in that recent 60 Minutes interview).

But it might also be a case of perception giving way to reality. Voters imagine a challenger lacking a President’s stature (one reason why voters expect Obama to outperform Romney in the debates). Then, come the first debate, they see two candidates on the same stage, literally on the same footing. Suddenly, the stature gap has shrunk (The Atlantic’s James Fallows takes a sharp look at these factors and the debate’s role in presidential election in this insightful article).

Finally, don’t rule out ego: it’s tempting for an incumbent to look down on a challenger as less qualified, less deserving. Such contempt can lead to reluctance to train. And in case you haven’t notice, the President waited until this weekend to begin intensive debate preparation – the opposite of Romney’s approach, which was to go into training immediately after his party’s national convention.

In other words, the grind gets his chance against the 10 o’clock scholar. A chance Romney needs more than Obama.

Follow Bill Whalen (@hooverwhalen) on Twitter