What did we do when we didn't have debates?
As I was telling a friend in Latin America, we have not always had debates in the U.S. In fact, we didn't from 1788 to 1960.
They did not happen again from 1964 to 1976. I've often wondered what an LBJ-Goldwater debate would have looked like. My guess is that LBJ would not have won with 60% of the vote. It would have been a lot closer, because Senator Goldwater was really an extremely serious man and not the monster the LBJ campaign made of him.
In 1976, I recall that President Ford challenged Governor Carter to debates. It happened during the 1976 acceptance speech, or a time when he was down in double-digits and putting the party back together.
As you may know, Governor Carter accepted, and we had three serious debates with one line about Poland that President Ford had to take back.
For most of us, it was the first time we seen such a debate since the famous Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960. I don't remember the 1960 debates, but my parents, and many Cubans on the island, did pay close attention by radio ("Voice of America") because Cuba was a major topic.
There are a few facts about these debates that you may want to consider:
1976 also marked the introduction of vice presidential debates which have regularly been held since 1984.
Let’s be honest: rarely do voters pay attention and rarely are these debates memorable.
There is, however, one exception.
In the 1988 debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle suggested he had as much experience as former President John F. Kennedy. Bentsen retorted with the now famous lines, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Yes, that Bentsen-Quayle moment was memorable, but it had zero impact on the results. I would add that Admiral Stockdale's "who am I" moment in the 1992 V.P. debates was hysterical.
I recall some highlights, such as Reagan's "there you go again." It may have flipped the election because it happened the last week of the campaign. It was a dead heat that night, but it ended 51-41% a week later on election day.
Reagan benefited from another line in 1984 when he joked about Mondale's youth. It probably sealed that election, too.
Another favorite moment was from 2000, when V.P. Gore made a total you-know-what out of himself with his facial contortions and reactions to Governor Bush. It ended up helping the calmer and more steady Bush, but I'm not sure that it changed any votes.
In both 2004 and 2012, the incumbent was crushed in the first debate. President Bush looked tired, and President Obama looked like he'd rather be watching ESPN that night. They both looked bad but came back and were re-elected with just under 51% of the vote.
Here are some ideas for debates in the future:
1) Go to an audience format and have people ask questions. They are more interesting and relevant. You can have a media person call on the voters and have them ask the questions.
2) Have the governor of each state ask the candidate a question. In other words, 50 questions. I like this idea because so often the states get lost in these debates. At the moment, there are more GOP governors, and that may be an advantage to Trump. However, I trust that the questions will be about issues and force the candidates to address topics like the EPA, federalism, judicial tyranny, and a few others.
3) Have one last debate with a panel of six journalists approved by both sides.
It may be fun to have a Lincoln-Douglas debate someday, but I don't think the candidates will run the risk.
Good luck to the candidates!
P.S. You can listen to my show (Canto Talk) and follow me on Twitter.