Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden face off on Tuesday (September 29) in a televised presidential debate, part of a 60-year-old tradition marked by some of the most memorable moments of modern US political history.
The first televised debate, in 1960, pitted Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy against Republican Vice President Richard Nixon, who was recovering from a hospital visit and had a 5 o’clock shadow, having refused makeup. The 70 million viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard. Kennedy won the election.
In 1976, the first TV debate in 16 years, Democrat Jimmy Carter faced unelected incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford. In remarks seen as a major blunder, Ford said: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Carter won the election.
Another memorable moment was in 1984, when President Ronald Reagan, 73, successfully defused the issue of his age when he debated Democrat Walter Mondale, 56, quipping: “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.” Reagan was re-elected.
While some question the importance of televised presidential debates six decades in, Eric Schnure, a professor at American University and former White House speech writer, said they matter a great deal.
“It’s one of these few moments during the course of a very long campaign when everyone can watch these two candidates on stage together and measure one against the other,” he said.
“You’re never going to out-mean Donald Trump. And the counter is: can you be calm, cool, and collected?”
The first debate between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 drew 84 million U.S. television viewers, a record for a debate and a rare number in an age of digital streaming. An exchange of insults dominated their second debate, with Clinton jabbing at Trump for sexually aggressive remarks about women he made on a just-uncovered 2005 videotape.
Trump sought to deflect criticism by accusing Bill Clinton, the candidate’s husband, of having done worse to women. In her book published in 2017, Clinton wrote that in their second debate Trump made her skin crawl by stalking her around the stage and she wondered if she should have told him to “back up, you creep.” In the third debate, Trump called Clinton “such a nasty woman” and declined to say he would accept the election results.
Schnure, who previously help Gore and Joe Lieberman with debate preparations, said candidates often work on “creating moments” while making them seem authentic and off-the-cuff.
“The other side of that is the moments that happen when the lights come on and you get a hard question in real-time, and you say something that might be not as elegant as you had hoped,” he said.
In his second debate with President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, responding to a question about gender pay equality, said he had “binders full of women” as candidates for Cabinet posts. The phrase became a meme on social media, with tweets, original artwork and a Facebook group spoofing Romney. Obama won again.
“[Trump] will claim victory no matter what,” said Schnure, adding that Biden’s performance needed to inspire anti-Trump voters to get out and vote.
“He needs to give them hope that come that first week in November, they’re going to win.”
The first presidential debate will take place in Cleveland, Ohio, on Tuesday.