By Michael A. Genovese
Rarely are debates won. The candidates score a debate point here and there, spin doctors claim a major victory for their candidates, talking heads give this or that candidate the victory only to be contradicted by the next talking head. By their very nature, political debates are hard to score.
For that reason, candidates face the debate with a clear strategy: Don’t lose! Because it is so difficult to win a debate, candidates spend a great deal of time instead, trying not to lose. That is because historically, few debates produce a clear winner, but several resulted in a clear loser. And how does one lose a political debate? Make a major faux pas or as we say “a gaffe.” History provides us with several examples of how to lose a debate by saying something stupid, insensitive, or downright confounding. And it is not just what is said that can hurt a candidate, it is also how they look.
In 1960, the first year of televised presidential debates, Richard Nixon, pale and anxious, did not look at all presidential, especially when compared to the sun-tanned, suave John Kennedy. Nixon’s “Tricky Dick” reputation was there in full bloom, as viewers found off-putting and shifty.
Sixteen years later, incumbent but unelected President Gerald Ford, did great damage to his campaign when he mistakenly said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” and he added, “there never will be under a Ford administration.” This gaffe was so obvious that the questioner gave Ford a chance to walk back his mistake. But Ford stuck with his assertion, and he was pilloried in the press, adding to the already mistaken view that Ford was not the sharpest politician in the world. In the end, Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in a very close race, and one of the contributing factors was the momentum lost when Ford spent a week trying to recover from his debate gaffe.
In 1988, Democratic nominee Mike Dukakis was roundly criticized for answering CNN’s Bernard Shaw’s question, “If Kitty Dukakis [the candidate’s wife] was raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for her killer?” with a tepid and technocratic answer: “No, I don’t, Bernard. And I think you know that I’ve always opposed the death penalty….” This dispassionate response proved a setback for Dukakis, who lost the election to Vice President George H.W. Bush.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in the 2011 Republican primary debate, produced a doozey when, in trying to name the government agencies he proposed eliminating, started by naming “Commerce and Education,” and then the mind-freeze hit the fan as Perry paused, and paused some more, desperately trying to remember the third agency he proposed eliminating. With each passing second, the crowd began to laugh louder and louder, and Perry was saved, 20 seconds too late, by one of his rivals reminding Perry that “the EPA” was the third agency. Then the debate moderator John Haywood asked if the EPA was the agency Perry was trying to recall. “No sir,” said Perry, and again, silence filled the stage. After another 15 seconds, Perry finally gave in. “I can’t …The third one, I can’t. Sorry, [pause] “Oops.” And that was the end for Perry’s chances of winning the nomination.
Candidates know that a strong performance can help, but by how much is uncertain. They also know that a gaffe can be campaign ending, humiliating and make the candidate a laughingstock. That is why debate performances are rather banal and bland. They are rarely our, or their, finest moments. Soaring rhetoric, when well-rehearsed, can be a plus, but a smart candidate is careful not to stray too far from script, lest they make a game-ending gaffe. Better to not make a mistake than to take the chance.
Michael A. Genovese holds the Loyola Chair of Leadership and is president of the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of 50 books, and regularly does political commentary for CNN, CNNi, CBS, KCAL and other media outlets.
Learn more about the road to the White House in Do Presidential Debates Matter?