Televised presidential debates are held between the two major party presidential candidates that occur during September and October of the presidential election year. There is also traditionally one debate between the two vice-presidential candidates. The first debates were held in 1960, but it was another 16 years before televised debates were held again.
There have only really been two debates that have been significant in shaping the outcome of the race. The first was in the debate held in October, 1980 between President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan. At the end of their 90-minute debate, each candidate was given 3 minutes to make a closing statement. Reagan had cleverly posed a series of questions to which he knew the majority of voters would answer in the negative. And with the election day less than a week away, he managed to shape the way voters would make up their minds in these vital last days of the campaign. Support for President Carter fell away badly following the debate and on election day he won only six states.
Reagan also featured in the second memorable debate moment when he went up against former Vice President Walter Mondale. By this time Reagan was already 73, and age was becoming an issue in the campaign. After a question was posed about President Reagan’s capability due to his age, Reagan came back with a quick response that won the audience over, leading to 49-state victory.
But most debates are not ‘game-changing’ event. True, Al Gore probably lost some support by rolling his eyes and sighing while George W. Bush was speaking during their first televised debate in 2000. And even though Mitt Romney came out victorious after the first debate between himself and President Obama due to a ‘lack-lustre’ performance by Obama in 2012, Obama still went on to win the election.
Television debates can often be an emphasis on ‘style’ and image rather than policy ‘substance’. During the 1960 debate between Kennedy and Nixon, Kennedy was deemed to have ‘won’ the debate because of his telegenic personality in contrast to Nixon’s not so telegenic one. This means that instead of television debates being about which candidate would make the best president based on policy and ideology, it instead becomes more about image and ‘performance’.
The evidence suggests that, as with televised commercials, debates do more to confirm what the voters already feel about the candidates than to change many voters’ minds. Also in the last seven elections only four candidates judged to have won the debates have gone on to win the election. Mondale (1984), Dukakis (1988) and Kerry (2004) were all judged as debate winners, but condemned by the voters to be election losers.