Why the Debates Matter So Much

Especially in the era of the 24-hour news cycle, it’s easy to overstate the significance of any given event on the presidential campaign trail—except when it comes to televised debates.

John McCain and Barack Obama will face off in Oxford, Miss., on Sept. 26, in the first of three scheduled encounters. Nine previous campaigns have featured televised presidential debates, and history is clear on their unique importance. Sometimes they’ve served to reinforce and lock in existing perceptions about the major candidates, essentially freezing the race in place. Other times they’ve reversed the public’s perceptions, resulting in meaningful polling shifts. Either way, they almost always set in place the basic narrative that defines the remaining days or weeks of the campaign.

2004: George W. Bush arrived at the first debate on Sept. 30 with an opportunity to put John Kerry away. After a brutally effective G.O.P. convention, Mr. Bush had opened a solid lead; Mr. Kerry had spent September walking into one Republican trap after another and failing to develop a coherent message. If the debates were a draw, conventional wisdom held, Mr. Bush’s lead would be cemented. But the Sept. 30 affair wasn’t a draw. Instead, Mr. Kerry was everything that he wasn’t on the campaign trail—sharp, clear, forceful, presidential—while Mr. Bush seemed easily confused and alarmingly unprepared. The stark contrast instantly moved the polls back into a tie, where the race remained until Election Day.

2000: A case study in how style points can change history: Al Gore was the slight favorite heading into the 2000 debates, and seemed to win his first showdown with George W. Bush on technical points. But the next day, television news fixated on Mr. Gore’s condescending sighs—along with accusations that he’d exaggerated or fabricated several anecdotes during the debate. This attention fed an existing caricature of Mr. Gore, who then (after being shown Darrell Hammond’s Saturday Night Live impression of him) overcompensated in the second debate with excessive deference to Mr. Bush. He finally hit his stride in the third debate, but it was too late. The debates were supposed to be Mr. Gore’s strong suit; instead, they probably cost him the election.

1996: There may not have been a polling bounce from the two Bill Clinton-Bob Dole debates, but that’s exactly the point. Long before they were held, it was clear that the debates were Mr. Dole’s only hope of cutting into Mr. Clinton’s double-digit lead. He went into them needing to force a gaffe or create some kind of dramatic moment that would prompt voters to rethink their loyalty to the president. When Mr. Dole failed to do this, the election was over.

1992: Two moments defined the three 1992 debates, which featured George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. In the first debate, Mr. Perot, who had just reentered the race and was polling in the single digits, stole the show with his folksy denunciations of partisan dysfunction, a performance that restored his credibility and moved his numbers well into double digits. The second debate, the first town-hall-style forum at the presidential level, belonged to Mr. Clinton, who effortlessly connected with his questioners (while Mr. Bush, in a scene that came to define his campaign, was caught on camera disinterestedly glancing at his watch at once point).

1988: Michael Dukakis had already squandered all of his mid-summer advantage over George H. W. Bush when the debates arrived, thanks to the Bush campaign’s relentless portrayal of him as a bloodless technocrat. When he was asked, in the very first question of the second (and final) debate, if he’d favor the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered, Mr. Dukakis had an opportunity to reverse this perception. Instead, he played right into it. The rest of the debate, and the campaign, didn’t matter.

1984: The Ronald Reagan-Walter Mondale race is actually a classic example of the power of debates. Reagan was the runaway leader in polls as the first debate approached, but the 73-year-old president’s confused and disjointed performance (complete with long pauses between and during some answers) was so jarring to millions of voters that his lead was trimmed in almost in half, to about 12 points. (Mr. Mondale’s own favorable ratings shot up by almost 20 points.) If the same thing happened in the second debate, there’s no telling what the damage might have been to Reagan. Instead, the president came to round two with a brilliant line and delivered it flawlessly. Hello, 49-state landslide.

1980: The race was dead even when Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter finally agreed to debate the week before the election, a result purely of doubts about Reagan, who was seen by many as a trigger-happy extremist. Reagan’s warmth, ease and humor were revelations to the viewing audience, and his put-downs of Mr. Carter—“There you go again,” for example—resonated. A week later, Reagan won 44 states.

Why the Debates Matter So Much