Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why debates don't always make a difference

By Donna Brazile, CNN Contributor
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Sat September 29, 2012
Donna Brazile says the 2008 debates between Barack Obama and John McCain didn't change the direction of the campaign.
Donna Brazile says the 2008 debates between Barack Obama and John McCain didn't change the direction of the campaign.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Donna Brazile: The hype is starting for the first presidential debate Wednesday
  • She says debates can make a difference but often don't change dynamics of a campaign
  • Most debates since 1980s haven't swung the elections, she says
  • Brazile: An incumbent president usually has more to lose, and debates elevate challengers

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease." She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.

(CNN) -- It seems everyone -- except perhaps the die-hard NFL fan -- agrees that the most important event scheduled for next week is the first presidential debate. I say "scheduled" because you never know what the news cycle will kick in. Snickers might have a new chocolate bar. Or something.

The pundits and politicians and the news media and the late-night comedians are salivating over the debate. Maybe the football fans should be jealous, because the debate is being "played" like a game -- who will win, and by how much, rather than as a serious exchange of ideas or contrast of visions.

Yes, the debates are important, but the political and economic conditions of the times are probably more important. Some debates have helped decide elections; others have just clarified the electoral winds.

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

Usually, the challenger has the advantage. He (and perhaps someday she) can go on the offensive. Being on the same stage with the president, who also has to defend his record, results in an automatic elevation of stature -- regardless of who's taller. Overall, an incumbent president has more to lose.

Still, whether a debate alone can win or lose an election is itself open to debate. Every debate produces a gaffe and a few lines for the late-night comedians. Whether that's enough to change the momentum of a campaign isn't so clear.

Most experts agree that the very first televised debate, that between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, did change the momentum and direction of that election.

Opinion: How can President Obama win the first debate?

Nixon certainly learned his lesson, refusing to debate in 1968 or 1972.

In the second presidential debate of 1976, Max Frankel of The New York Times asked President Gerald Ford about the Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. Ford said, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." Astounded, Frankel gave Ford a chance to modify his response, but Ford elaborated, saying, "I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union." Or the Yugoslavians or Romanians, he added -- two countries whose rebellions the Soviet Union had crushed.

That was a jaw-dropper, and Carter said the debates gave him credibility.

Clinton: Debates are crucial for Romney
Romney campaign questions polls
Different messages in battleground state

But just two years earlier Nixon resigned in disgrace and the country remained torn by the Vietnam legacy. So perhaps Ford's odd declaration only highlighted an inherent political weakness.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan, thanks to several decades of acting experience, looked presidential, selling himself to the American people as he had earlier sold them 20 Mule Team Borax.

When Carter said Reagan would cut Medicare, Reagan, who'd been complaining that Carter had been misrepresenting him, quipped, "There you go again." And he ended with the now famous, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

But Carter didn't help his cause when he ended by saying he'd asked his teenage daughter, Amy, to tell him the biggest issue of the day (the answer concerned nuclear weapons). And inflation was at 13.5%, the country was in an energy crisis and the Iran hostage situation made Carter look weak.

In 1984, Reagan's zinger about own age -- "I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience" -- cost Walter Mondale the election, according to Mondale. But with the economy turning around and Reagan's popular "cowboy" stance against the Soviet Union apparently restoring American prestige abroad, the president already had a commanding lead in the polls before the debate.

In 1988, we had Michael Dukakis' convoluted, wooden response to a hypothetical question about whether he would impose the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife. But Dukakis was done in by Reagan's legacy, his own PR ineptness and a "dirty tricks" campaign worthy of Nixon (see Willie Horton).

In 1992, viewers thought if anybody won the debates, it was third-party candidate Ross Perot, but President George H.W. Bush looked detached at times when he looked at his watch. Clinton was more personable.

Opinion: Fox's laughable case for Romney

By 1996, the incumbent Clinton had a commanding lead over the 73-year-old war veteran Bob Dole, who looked tired. Youthful vigor won.

Given the disputed results of the 2000 cycle, it's hard to say what impact the debates had. But I will never forget the expectations game. Karl Rove, then George W. Bush's chief strategist, pronounced that Al Gore was the "world's most pre-eminent debater." Expectations were exceedingly high for us. Gore was prepared, but perhaps too prepared. He was anxious, and the split screen didn't do us any favors. We lost the debate on body language and sighing, not substance. Nixon's revenge, I guess.

In 2004, Bush was a wartime president. While the challenger, Sen. John Kerry, got under his skin in the first debate, Bush still managed to keep his cool under intense rhetorical fire.

In 2008, revulsion against Bush's economic and foreign policies, the Great Recession and the candidacy of Sarah Palin overshadowed the debates between John McCain and Barack Obama.

So a good debate performance or a poor one can make a difference, but conditions in the country and how voters perceive the candidates probably matter more.

The debates this year will certainly have their moments. But both candidates are already so well-known, the memorable lines will probably reinforce, rather than change, voters' perceptions.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donna Brazile.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 2:27 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT