Lessons learned from debates past

Presidential debates were born in 1960, when for the first time the nominees of the two major parties met to face off before a national TV audience. Memorable moments in debate history provide us with some lessons on how to come out a winner:

  • Appearances matter. The camera loved then-Senator John Kennedy. In sharp contrast, Nixon refused to wear make-up, visibly sweat on-stage and wore a gray suit that almost matched the color of the TV-set’s back-drop.  Nixon learned from his mistakes in later debates but still lost the election to Kennedy.
  • Avoid awkward silences. After a 16-year gap, debates returned to television when Jimmy Carter squared off against President Gerald Ford in 1976. The much-anticipated debate got off to a rocky start when the sound system blew, leaving the two men standing in awkward silence for nearly half-an-hour as technicians scrambled to make repairs.
  • Be assertive. In 1980, during a debate among Republican presidential candidates, the moderator tried to shut off Reagan's microphone. Reagan, whose campaign had paid for the debate hall, was trying to explain why he thought all the candidates should be included. Reagan shouted, “ I paid for this microphone!”  Reagan’s response became a defining moment in the campaign.
  • Humor saves the day. Four years later in another debate with President Reagan, Walter Mondale tried to make an issue of the president’s age. Reagan quickly diffused any concern:  “I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign.  I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponents youth and inexperience.”
  • Sensitivity counts. In 1988, the second presidential debate between George Bush and Michael Dukakis began with a shocking question from Bernard Shaw."Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer? Dukakis simply said, “No, I don’t Bernard.” Dukakis was widely criticized for his response that many said lacked passion or emotion. 
  • Time to pay attention. Critical blunders continued in 1992 when during a debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, President George Bush glanced at his watch during the event. This suggested he had either somewhere more important to be or was just plain bored.  Bush later lost his presidency to Bill Clinton.
  • Snappy comebacks work. Perhaps the most memorable moment in debate history came during a vice presidential debate in 1988 between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Benson. The issue?  Age. Quayle defended his youth by explaining he was the same age as President Kennedy when he was elected.  Benson’s response was one for the history books: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. You, Senator, are no Jack Kennedy.”
    “Quayle looked like he was hit by a ray gun on Star Trek,” said MSNBC Host Chris Matthews.  “He simply dissolved.” 
  • Practice makes perfect. Benson aides had actually heard Quayle make a similar statement about himself and Kennedy at the Missouri State Fair. Benson wisely prepared a snappy comeback... and it worked.