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The Most Important Presidential Debates in American History, According to Historians
Fascinating read from Time. Definitely recommend reading from start to finish, especially if you enjoy a walk down history lane. But to give just the list for this thread's discussion, here we are:
JFK vs Nixon (1960)
Carter vs Ford (1976)
Carter vs Reagan (1980)
George H.W. Bush vs Clinton vs Perot (1992)
George W. Bush vs Gore (2000)
That's the top 5. It's really interesting how the importance of televised presidential debates has changed over the decades, as our country changes and technology matures. The weight of candidates debating and it's ability to capture the American public and sway a election really hinges on what the country is going through at the moment. And what national conversation rules the day -- war, the state of the economy, injustices of all kinds, crime, climate change, etc.
But also the candidates themselves, juxtaposed against each other. JFK v Nixon was the ultimate example of this I would say.
Also an election can be easily won or lost during a single televised presidential debate, with a simple gaffe. Or you can be exposed on the biggest stage with the most Americans watching at the same time as being weak or ill informed on an issue: see Ford's comment on the Soviet union in the 1976 debate, which many believed helped Carter win:
The pair faced each other for a total of three debates, but the debates are best remembered for a single moment during the second debate. President Ford declared that “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” At the time, even the moderator, Max Frankel of the New York Times, was unable to hold back his surprise: “I’m sorry, what? … did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there and making sure with their troops that it’s a communist zone…”
I also think its interesting to consider how the internet and social media have given more exposure to candidates well before a nationally televised debate. So from around 2004 onward we have progressively been much more inundated with the personality (or lack-thereof) of candidates, and you could argue that debates are less important now than any from 1960 - 2000. Which may be why TIME's historians they polled didn't put any debates on this list from 2004-2016.
That doesn't mean modern-day presidential debates don't matter any more. When the country is polarized, debates are still a fascinating watch to see how candidates act and react to each other, in real time. My absolute favorite example actually made this list - Bush v Clinton v Perot. I have watched that debate a few times over and am amazed how Clinton rose to prominence during a single debate by commanding the stage, even though I felt Perot was the strongest of them and should have won out. Clinton I believe won the election by being the alpha on the stage and winning over the audience, both in the studio and at home, a HUGE turning point for his career.