Unforgettable moments from past political debates
As the 2024 presidential cycle approaches, the main hallmark of the American electoral process is about to begin: the debates.
Millions of people tune in to this time-honored tradition, which has long been considered the ultimate show for candidates seeking the nation’s highest office.
“These are the only times we see them side by side,” said Mitchell McKinney, a professor of political communication at the University of Akron. “It provides opportunities for candidates to either help themselves or hurt themselves.”
Here’s a look at some of the most memorable debate moments in US history.
The first nationally televised debate in history involving John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The photos were not in Nixon’s favour, as he was seen sweating and looking pale after being previously hospitalized with an infection, while Kennedy appeared youthful and gave a more energetic performance.
“There is a lot of speculation that Nixon’s failure to consider how important his appearance was led to his failure in the debate and thus the election,” said Jacob Thompson, a professor of communications at the University of Nevada.
Ford’s mistake in “Soviet hegemony”
Incumbent President Gerald Ford made a huge mistake during his general election debate against Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Ford asserted that “there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” under his leadership, a remark that prompted the moderator to ask, “I’m sorry, what?” Ford emphasized his answer during the debate, though he later said what he meant was that the spirit of communist-controlled Eastern Europe had not been crushed.
“He didn’t mean exactly what he said, but the damage was done,” said Brandon Rottinghouse, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
Reagan shuts down the age-related questions
Ronald Reagan, the oldest president at the time, shut down some questions about his age during his debate with Democrat Walter Mondale.
“I want you to know that I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I will not exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Reagan said, prompting laughter in the room and even in Mondale.
“You could see him on stage at that point laughing, but what was really going on in his head was that he was crying because he knew he had lost the debate and he might have lost the debate,” Mondale said in his later autobiography and in a documentary. “The election,” Thompson said.
You are not Jack Kennedy.
In this vice presidential debate, Lloyd Bentsen attacked Dan Quayle after Quayle called out Kennedy. At the time, Cowell was being compared to the late president since both were so young when they took office.
“I served with Jack Kennedy,” Bentsen said. “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re not Jack Kennedy.”
Democrat Mike Dukakis was widely criticized for what critics said was a tough response to a 1988 debate question on the death penalty.
CNN’s Bernard Shaw conjured up a hypothetical sketch regarding Dukakis’ wife — but the governor missed nothing in his sobering response.
“Governor, if Kitty Dukakis was raped and murdered, would you prefer the irrevocable death penalty for the murderer?” Shaw asked.
Dukakis replied, “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know I’ve opposed the death penalty all my life.”
Watching glances and sighs
President George HW Bush was criticized for looking at his watch during the 1992 three-way debate with Democrat Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot.
Bush was seen looking at his wrist after a question posed by an audience member about how the national debt personally affects each candidate.
In 2000, Democrat Al Gore was mocked for his audible sobs during his debate with George W. Bush, as well as his decision to walk and stand in front of Bush at one point in the debate.
Rick Perry “Excuse me”
In a 2012 Republican primary debate, then-Texas Governor Rick Perry partially forgot to answer a question about his plan to remove three federal agencies.
Perry named two agencies but could not remember the third, saying, “Sorry.”
The moment “was literally the death knell for the Perry campaign, which was struggling at that point but then officially died,” said Rottinghaus, who is currently working on a book on Perry.
Christie vs. Rubio
In a 2016 Republican primary debate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was attacked by then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for using a similar line over and over throughout the debate.
Rubio has repeatedly said that then-President Barack Obama “knew exactly what he was doing.”
“There it is. There it is. Speech memorized for 25 seconds. There it is, everybody,” Christy said at one point.
Christie, who will run for president again in 2024, said the moment toppled Rubio’s campaign – which Rubio had largely pushed back.
2020 Democratic primary debates
McKinney said two moments from the last Democratic primary debates stood out, the first when Sen. Elizabeth Warren faced off against Michael Bloomberg.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: the billionaire who calls women ‘fat women’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians,'” Warren said. “No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump.”
Warren said she did not think the Democratic Party should “replace an arrogant billionaire with another.”
Another highlight, McKinney said, was Kamala Harris’ challenge to Joe Biden on the issue of racial segregation and busing. Harris challenged Biden about his past working relationship with two pro-apartheid lawmakers.
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class of her public school integration, and she was bussed to school every day, and that little girl was me,” Harris said. “I will tell you that on this subject, there can be no intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act quickly.”
Do debates change election results?
The question of whether debate moments will be game-changers in the outcome of the election itself has long been debated.
Experts said the scholarship shows the debates usually don’t change the outcome enough to make a significant difference in terms of which candidate ultimately wins or loses the race.
“At best, debates provide a boost, as they did in the close elections in 1960 and in 2000,” said Routinghouse. “All of those moments were very choppy and the election was close and at the end of the day the debates had a little bit more of a role than they traditionally have.”
There are two strong indicators in the social science data about presidential debates, Thompson said. The first is that voters learn from them and the second is that the educational and preferential effects of primary debates are much higher than those of general election debates.
“Primary debates have a big impact because people are less stable in their opinions about the candidates and at the same time partisanship plays less of a role,” Thompson said.
Thompson also noted that the primary debates are significant in that they tend to have a “sifting effect” on the field of presidential hopefuls.
“People will drop out because of poor performance, or that poor performance that results in their poll averages and campaign donations going down,” he added.
This article originally appeared on abcnews.go.com