COMMENTARY: Presidential debate ‘don’ts” often keys to elections

Ironically, there is a proclivity to remember the bad moments by candidates in previous presidential debates over the good spots. Accordingly, a review of flubs, mistakes, and overall atrocious performances follows, with a warning to this year’s candidates to avoid these pitfalls:

1. SICK BEFORE DEBATE: This apparently happened to Richard Nixon in 1960. When he showed up at the studio, Nixon refused makeup and sweated profusely. Against the younger, taller, and more tanned John Kennedy, Nixon looked droopy. Most television viewers gave the first debate that year to Kennedy, though radio listeners thought Nixon won.

2. PERCEPTION v. REALITY: Wishing that nations like Poland were not part of the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War is one thing, but publicly stating it as fact is another. When President Gerald Ford made the latter claim at a debate with candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976, he was asked to repeat his answer. When he did, he was toast.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

3. BAD TIMING: Presidential candidates usually have some control over the scheduling of debates. In 1980, there was a single debate between President Jimmy Carter and candidate Ronald Reagan.

Because it was held so close to the election, the debate winner would get a boost and the loser may not be able to recover. Reagan won on most cards, giving an effective closing argument which highlighted the weaknesses of the Carter record. What was a neck-and-neck race, according to polls, became a rout on election day.

4. OVERPREPARED: President Ronald Reagan’s advisers apologized for over-preparing The Gipper for the first debate against Walter Mondale in 1984. Reagan uncharacteristically looked confused and was bested by Mondale. Reagan recovered by making a joke of his opponent’s “youth and inexperience” in the second debate.

5. NOT SHOWING ENOUGH EMOTION: This was the sin committed by presidential contenders in 1988 and 2012. Of these, both were Democrats, of whom one won the general election and won lost. In 1988, candidate Michael Dukakis was criticized for not reacting more vividly to a question involving the hypothetical rape and killing of his wife. Dukakis’s demeanor cemented his reputation as a bureaucrat, not what was wanted in 1988.

In the first presidential debate in 2012, President Barack Obama slept-walked through the event against candidate Mitt Romney, who was more animated and aggressive. Obama rallied in the second debate and won reelection.

6. NEVER FORGET THE CAMERA: In 1992, President George Bush was caught looking at his watch during one of the presidential debates with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. The scene was played over and over on the evening news and stereotyped Bush as impatient and frustrated.

He had reason to be, as the economy tanked, and so did Bush on Election Day.

7. MAKING STRANGE SOUNDS AND FACES: In 2000, both candidates were accused of odd behavior during the presidential debates. Candidate Al Gore repeatedly sighed during one debate. Candidate George Bush contorted his face several times in another debate. As it turned out, these boo-boos were a wash in a near-perfect tie.

Presidential debates have thankfully become institutionalized as a part of the general election process. With the polls showing a tightening contest, the outcome of the three debates in 2016 may make the difference in the selection of the next American president.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. An eight-time independent candidate for U.S. president, Dr. Hoff has taught and published extensively on the American presidency.

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