Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

The mistakes candidates make in debates

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 10:45 AM EDT, Tue October 2, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Top priority for candidates in debates is to avoid mistakes
  • He says gaffes have the potential to change how voters view a candidate
  • Candidates are viewed not only for what they say but for their body language, he says
  • Zelizer: Obama, Romney will be under a microscope Wednesday night when the debates begin

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of the new book "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Commentators usually make too much of presidential debates. Social science data consistently show that there are very few presidential debates that make a huge difference in the dynamics of a campaign -- other than a few exceptions where the race was incredibly narrow, as in 1960 or 2000, and the performance of candidates had some impact.

Regardless of whether they are game-changers, the presidential debates are still an important part of the broader narrative about each candidate that voters evaluate when they step into the voting booth in November.

More important than doing well is avoiding mistakes. Particularly in the current age of YouTube and nightly political news comedy, any slip-up can become fodder for the 24-hour news cycle. The last thing that a candidate wants to do is provide material for the "Saturday Night Live" comedy writers who are eagerly preparing for the next show.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The mistakes the presidential candidates have made over the years are numerous. Poor body language has been a common blunder. As much as candidates focus on perfecting the substance of what they say before the cameras, a large number of Americans are really most interested to see how they say it.

In 1960, the sweat on Vice President Richard Nixon's brow, his pale skin, and his darting eyes conveyed the image of a politician who could not be fully trusted.

Debate coach: Obama, Romney are top performers

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush's decision to glance at his watch while someone asked a question during a town hall meeting with Bill Clinton played into the image that he had little interest or patience with Americans struggling through the recession.

Vice President Al Gore's continual sighs during his 2000 debate against George W. Bush conveyed a level of arrogance that made him more difficult to like. In another odd moment, Gore walked right up to Bush as he answered a question, looking like a schoolyard bully trying to stare down his opponent as he spoke.

Looks are important, but so are words. The way in which candidates package their ideas can matter very much. Though there is always a temptation for candidates to prove that they know their stuff, sometimes too many words can be deadly.

McCain lowers debate expectations
Clinton: Debates are crucial for Romney

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter provided a lengthy and substantive response when asked about health insurance. Ronald Reagan simply turned to him and said, "There you go again!" Reagan used just those few words to raise questions about whether Carter, with all his knowledge, really knew what he was talking about and whether he could be trusted.

In 1984, Reagan's scattered response to a question, where he seemed to have trouble keeping his thoughts together and articulating an answer, raised questions about whether he was too old to be president.

Reagan recovered, however, turning the tables on his opponent, Walter Mondale, in the following debate, when he said, "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."

The manner in which candidates respond often tells voters a lot about the personality of a candidate.

In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis answered with clinical detachment when CNN's Bernard Shaw asked whether he would support the death penalty for someone who raped and killed his wife. "No, I don't, Bernard, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent and I think there are more effective ways to deal with violent crime."

As he reiterated his opposition to the death penalty, Dukakis seemed to miss the fact that the panel wanted to see him wrestle with this difficult choice. The cold response conveyed the image of a politician who lacked warmth or passion.

Opinion: When candidates said 'no' to debates

Verbal gaffes also have the capacity to turn a debate into a major campaign headache. Before his 1976 debate against Carter, President Gerald Ford eagerly prepared to respond to criticism, coming from the right and the left, that his policy of detente with the Soviet Union meant that he had essentially accepted the permanence of Communism. When Ford responded to a question by saying that there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration," he meant to say that he didn't accept its legitimacy, nor did the people living under Communist rule.

When questioned by a stunned reporter, Ford simply repeated his statement. Not missing a beat, Carter pounced on the statement to raise questions about whether Ford was capable of handling the duties of the office.

Presidential debates are full of land mines for the candidates. Even in an age where everything in politics is so scripted and overprepared, the televised debates remain an event where many mistakes are bound to be made. With the television cameras focused on everything the candidate does, and the political-analysis-industrial complex ready to pounced on every word and motion, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, particularly with the race still so close, must enter with caution and be cognizant of how many of their predecessors have stumbled in this arena.

For Obama, the challenge will be one of appearance, to convey the impression of strong leadership that his critics say he lacks and that independents are still trying to evaluate. For Romney, he'll need to avoid the kinds of gaffes that have gotten him into repeated trouble and show, through his answers and demeanor, that he is not simply a creature of America's one percent.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT