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10 Presidential Debates That Actually Made an Impact

The substance of what candidates say can overshadowed by superficial blunders or theatrical, scripted lines.
Image: Barack Obama And Mitt Romney Participate In Second Presidential Debate
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama answer questions during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University on Oct. 16, 2012 in Hempstead, New York.John Moore / Getty Images

Ever since the very first televised presidential debates in 1960, these live candidate face-offs have served as some of the most pivotal inflection points of the nation's elections.

While they weren’t repeated again until 1976, they've been a staple ever since and most Americans are familiar with the big moments the debates have provided over the past decades — from the striking youthful vitality of John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan’s one-liners and Al Gore’s exaggerated sighs.

There’s a reason why we place such importance on debates, even when the substance of what the candidates say can be easily overshadowed by superficial blunders or theatrical, scripted lines.

“They show us things about candidates that other venues do not, but they also sometimes overwhelm everything else we know about a candidate,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss told NBC News.

Think 2008. Do most voters recall anything specific that then-Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain discussed regarding policy? Probably not. But do they might well recall the unfortunate moment when McCain appeared to repeatedly wander in front of the camera, especially since the episode was etched into their consciousness by a subsequent "Saturday Night Live" sketch and on other late night comedy shows.

Still, there are numerous examples of debates having a major impact on either the final results of a presidential race — or the public's enduring perception of a candidate — sometimes both.

Here are the 10 most memorable examples:

1960 — Kennedy v. Nixon

The first televised presidential debate in U.S. history may also be the most consequential, since it is widely viewed as playing a crucial role in Democrat John F. Kennedy’s victory over Republican Vice President Richard Nixon in that year’s general election.

Political mythology holds that Americans who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon came off better but that Kennedy’s cool, attractive demeanor on television provided a winning contrast to Nixon’s sweaty discomfort. While there were no insta-polls to discern any differing reactions between radio and TV audiences, the visual differences between the two candidates were clear enough.

Few people now recall that, rhetorically, Kennedy ran to Nixon’s right on foreign policy, or that the vice president’s infamously pallid appearance was due to the fact that he initially refused make-up and was on the mend from a hospital stay. The narrative of their debates has become part of American political legend and a cautionary tale for presidential contenders ever since.

1976 — Carter v. Ford

After a 16-year period where there were no televised debates, they made a return for good in 1976. And while the face-offs between Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican President Gerald Ford, weren’t altogether memorable, they did produce a moment which may have significantly impacted the final result.

After maintaining a sizable lead throughout much of the general election, Ford began to close in on Carter in the final weeks of the race. But the president may have squandered some of that momentum by stumbling over a question during their second debate regarding Poland, which he insisted was not under “Soviet domination.” It was, and Ford had to retract his statement, feeding into a perception that he was in over his head. He would narrowly lose to Carter that November.

1980 — Reagan v. Carter

The 1980 election is now probably best remembered for Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory which is credited with spawning a conservative revolution in this country. But the polls were tight and fluctuating as he and President Jimmy Carter entered into their first and only televised debate late in the election. Although there was widespread dissatisfaction with Carter, there were also deep concerns about Reagan’s experience and temperament.

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However, not only did Reagan sufficiently convince the American voters that he was up for the job, he devastated the less dynamic Carter with a single one liner (“There you go again”) and a FDR-inspired closing statement (“Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”) which the embattled Democratic president never mustered a memorable retort to. Four years later, Reagan would once again demonstrate why it would be a mistake to underestimate “The Gipper.”

1984 — Reagan v. Mondale

Although Reagan had long been the favorite to win re-election in November, his meandering and malapropism-heavy performance in the first televised debate opposite Walter Mondale, briefly gave the Minnesota Democrat and former vice president a boost in the polls. The president’s performance brought renewed focus on his advanced age (Reagan was 73 at the time) and raised questions about how engaged he was in the business of the White House.

However, in this pre-24 hour cable news atmosphere, Reagan was able to diffuse the entire controversy with a simple joke: "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 line was so good, even Mondale couldn’t help but laugh, though he would later concede that he was dying inside because “I knew he had gotten me there.” Reagan would have more gaffes — in the second debate he would accidentally reveal the location of a CIA facility in Central America and giving a closing statement so rambling it needed to be prematurely cut off — but his momentum in the campaign never stalled, and he won in another huge landslide that fall.

1988 — Bush v. Dukakis

The beginning of the end of Michael Dukakis' once-promising presidential run could be traced back in part to his performance in televised debates opposite then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. His wonky, dispassionate delivery turned off a lot of voters, especially when he was asked an arguably "gotcha" question about whether he would stand by his anti-death penalty position even if his wife were "raped and murdered."

In the years since, Shaw has stood by his provocative line of questioning and for his part, Dukakis has defended his somewhat robotic response. "I have to tell you, and maybe I'm just still missing it ... I didn't think it was that bad," he told PBS 16 years later.

1988 — Quayle v. Benson

For Democrats in '88, perhaps the only real highlight of the election cycle came in the usually uneventful vice presidential debate — where veteran Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen faced off against the youthful (and many argued inexperienced) Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle.

During the debate, Quayle tried to link himself to the legacy of former President John F. Kennedy, and the comparison did not sit well with Bentsen.

"I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy," said Bentsen, sparking spontaneous raucous applause. While a wounded-looking Quayle pushed back, and a few pundits then and now believed the retort was over the line, voters detected an element of truth in the statement.

And although Quayle would be on the winning ticket in November, his tenure as vice president was sullied by the impression that he was a gaffe-prone upstart -- a image which was cemented in on the debate stage. Meanwhile, Bentsen proved so popular that one "faithless" West Virginia elector pledged her support to him in the general election tally, not Dukakis who won the state and technically all its delegates.

1992 — Bush v. Clinton v. Perot

The unusual inclusion of a third party candidate and an eccentric one at that — businessman Ross Perot — insured an even greater level of interest in the 1992 presidential debates. They were also the first to introduce the so-called "town hall" format, which has become a staple of the modern debate series. This format was perceived as especially favorable to then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who had become known for his intense eye contact and physical comfort with voters on the campaign trail.

President George H. W. Bush was on the other hand, much more awkward in these kinds of encounters, as evidenced by his seemingly testy reaction to a question about how the national debt and recession had impacted his life or the lives of anyone close to him.

Perhaps even more damning was a moment came as that very question was being asked, when the president was caught on camera looking at his wristwatch, which only exacerbated the perception that he was indifferent and detached from the concerns of average Americans.

2000 — Gore v. Bush

Although pundits may have argued that Vice President Gore topped then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush on substance, he faltered in terms of style. First, his sighing during Bush's answers was deemed smug and disrespectful. Then, his aggressiveness — particularly when he appeared to be ready to pounce on Bush physically — was held against him. Bush was able to play the affable foil to the stiff and wonkish Gore.

This year also proved that the expectations game can be just as crucial as debate prep and performance. Prior to their face-to-face meetings. Gore had built up a reputation as a strong and steady debater (having dispatched with Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp and during a highly-rated broadcast of "Larry King Live", Ross Perot).

Bush, on the other hand, was contending with the image of being an intellectual lightweight, with many experts predicting he would crash and burn. By defying expectations, Bush won, and ever since both major parties have done their best to downplay how their nominee will perform.

2008 — Palin v. Biden

There may be no vice presidential debate before or since that generated more buzz, predominately because of Sarah Palin, the polarizing Alaska governor, who was entering the stage following a series of embarrassing headlines and poorly received interviews, which had raised real questions in voters' minds about whether she was fit for office. Sen. Joe Biden, himself so stranger to poorly received off-the-cuff remarks, had to also walk a delicate balance, since there was already a heightened sensitivity to sexism in the campaign.

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The debate ended up proceeding without major incident — Palin made more than a few factual errors and largely pursued her own talking points instead of answering the moderator's — but it didn't undermine the Democrats' momentum or restore trust in the GOP ticket.

2012 — Obama v. Romney

After a lackluster first debate, President Obama saw his re-election chances in real peril as he headed into his second prime-time sparring match with Republican Mitt Romney. During a back-and-forth over the recent embassy attack in Benghazi, Romney tried to take Obama to task for allegedly not called it a terrorist a tack.

A confident Obama urged moderator Candy Crowley to "get the transcript," she eventually interjected and confirmed that the president had called the incident an "act of terror." While some viewers would later accuse Crowley of being in the tank for Obama, the moment exposed the vacuousness of Romney's attack and played into the Democrats' narrative that he was dishonest.

A more sure-footed Obama would coast through the third and final debate, winning handily in November.