U.S. Presidential Debate Trivia: Gaffes, Zingers, More

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In 1984 73-year-old Republican President Ronald Reagan's advancing age was a campaign issue, especially after a poor showing in the first Presidential debate. Reagan largely diffused the issue with a memorable quip in the second round.

"I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign," he told 56-year-old opponent Walter Mondale, Vice President in the Democractic Carter White House. "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Another Reaganism—his 1980 question to voters, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"—has more than stood the test of time.

"That comment has entered the political vocabulary," Schroeder said. "It comes up in every campaign."

Setting the Stage

Behind the verbiage of presidential debates is an elaborately detailed production. Like duels, debates have ground rules. Many are designed to increase a candidate's all-important television appeal. Shorter candidates routinely use risers behind their podiums to mask height discrepancies. Even movement is choreographed.

"This year, for instance, it's written [in the rules] that [the candidates] couldn't move from behind the lecterns," Schroeder said. "This was mostly at the Bush people's suggestion, because Kerry did that in his 1996 senate debate versus Massachusetts Governor William Weld. [Kerry] would work the space a little more, and it played very well on TV."

Audiences are managed as well—to be as little a part of the debate as possible. The public is generally kept unlit and off camera because politicians are afraid that visuals of audience reactions may influence viewer perception.

But somewhere in that audience are the candidates' spouses, and where they sit is very negotiable. "In 1996 Bob Dole insisted that his wife be visible to him at all times, because her job was to remind him to smile," Schroeder said. "So he'd be able to see her smiling and remember that he should have a smile on his face."

Substance or Spin?

Are U.S. presidential debates just so much hot air, or do they really influence elections? Schroeder points to two debates that were particularly influential.

Democratic President John F. Kennedy reached the White House thanks, in part, to his 1960 debates with Republican candidate Richard Nixon. The first debate offered the greatest contrast: Tanned, telegenic Kennedy made a much better visual impression than pale, makeup free, stubble-chinned Nixon, who was recovering from the flu. Radio listeners had considerably different perceptions of the contest than television viewers.

The second election-changing debate was the single 1980 Ronald Reagan-Jimmy Carter debate—held a week before the election, the latest a debate has occurred. "That one is thought to have been quite pivotal for Reagan," Schroeder said. "Those [two examples] are really the only ones that I think you could look at and say that they made a big difference."

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