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Could tonight's presidential debate change the 2016 election? History suggests yes.

Sep 26, 2016

As everyone knows, the first presidential debate since the primaries is tonight, the first head-to-head clash between the two least popular presidential nominees ever.


The atmosphere is more like that surrounding a Super Bowl, or maybe the boxing match “Thrilla in Manila,” than a normal political event, and it is expected to draw perhaps a hundred million viewers, far more than any other in the history of televised debates.

After all, as a story in the Boston Globe said yesterday, “all that’s at stake is the future of the free world.” Regardless of whether you think that’s true, it is unquestionable that these debates, which are really sort of televised joint news conferences, have often had dramatic impact.

Who can forget a shifty-eyed, perspiring and nervous Richard Nixon, looking uncomfortable, his stubble showing, as the handsome and tanned John F. Kennedy stole the show and won the election. We’ve seen Ronald Reagan destroying Jimmy Carter with his gently mocking “there you go again,” and Reagan slip badly, then recover, when the issue of his age came up four years later in his debates with Walter Mondale.

There have also been memorable moments in the vice-presidential debates. Bob Dole lost points by being too nasty and aggressive when he was running for the second slot in 1976. Years later, Dole, who had a better sense of humor than both this year’s candidates put together, told me, “I went for the jugular in that debate – my own.”

Lloyd Bentsen never got to be vice president, because he was running with the hapless Michael Dukakis. But he destroyed any hope Dan Quayle had for moving higher with his devastating line, “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

But while we know these debates are crucial to the presidency, we often don’t realize they can have consequences for other races as well. Four years ago, President Obama came to his first debate with Mitt Romney looking like he wasn’t really prepared.

The president seemed passive and inept, and observers overwhelmingly agreed Romney had won. The advantage didn’t last, however; Obama picked himself up and decisively won the final two debates, after Romney made his famous “I have binders full of women” gaffe.

After the election, I said to Congressman Sander Levin that the debates didn’t seem to have had any lasting effect. “Ah, but you are wrong about that,” he said.

He said Obama’s weak performance in the first debate caused worried Democrats to shift millions in campaign spending from congressional races to the presidential contest.

That, Levin believed, might have cost Democrats a chance to take back control of the U.S. House of Representatives. I’m not sure about that. But it might have made a difference in one Michigan race. There’s a retired legislator named Gary McDowell in the little Upper Peninsula town of Rudyard who might be in Congress today if things had gone differently.

He ran for Congress up north four years ago, and lost by one-half of one percent of the vote. He ran well ahead of the President in his district, and a little more money could have made the difference. This year, Democrat Lon Johnson is trying for the same seat.

You can bet he’s hoping Hillary Clinton does really well.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.