Biggest Debate Turning Points in History

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Biggest Debate Turning Points in History

The first Kennedy-Nixon general election presidential debate in 1960, the second Bush-Clinton-Perot general election presidential debate in 1992, and the second Carter-Ford general election presidential debate in 1976 are three primary or general election debates in American history that appeared most impactful.

First Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debate in 1960

Second Bush-Clinton-Perot Presidential Debate in 1992

  • Six articles, particularly those published by VOA News, Yahoo! News, Time, The New York Times, Fox 32, and NBC News, indicate that the second presidential debate among Republican President George H. W. Bush, Democratic Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, and Texas independent businessman Ross Perot in 1992 was among the most impactful primary or general election debates in American history.
  • The 1992 presidential debates were the first presidential debate series to use a town hall debate format. This format played to the advantage of Clinton who had shown he has no trouble connecting with people on a personal level.
  • At the debate, a woman in the audience asked the presidential candidates how the growing national debt had impacted them personally. Bush fumbled for words and was repeatedly caught looking at his watch. Clinton, in contrast, responded with a clear and strong answer that showed empathy.
  • In this video, it can be seen that when Clinton said "in my state, when people lose their jobs, there's a good chance I know them by their names...," the woman who asked the question started nodding and agreeing to what he was saying. According to Carolyn Ryan, an assistant managing editor at The New York Times, Clinton's response was a masterclass in connecting with people and making them feel listened to.
  • Bush's reaction to the question, on the other hand, was testy. At one point in his response, Bush also admitted that he was not sure he understood the question correctly.
  • To the public, Bush's response only brought to the fore the impression that he was indifferent, disinterested in listening to voters, and out of touch with the needs and realities of ordinary people.
  • Despite Bush's popularity and high approval rating prior the debate, Clinton easily won the 1992 election.
  • Though Perot did not win the election, his well-reviewed performance in the debates was partly the reason he got more supporters after the debates.

Second Carter-Ford Presidential Debate in 1976

  • Five articles, particularly those published by VOA News, Time, The New York Times, AP News, and NBC News, indicate that the second presidential debate between Democratic Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter and Republican President Gerald Ford in 1976 was among the most impactful primary or general election debates in American history.
  • At the debate, when asked about Poland, Ford asserted that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." The statement was so unexpected that even Max Frankel, the debate moderator, was unable to hide his surprise and was compelled to ask if he understood him correctly.
  • Carter took advantage of this opportunity by asking Ford to convince Polish-Americans, Czech Americans, and Hungarian-Americans that their home countries were not under Soviet domination.
  • According to Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, that moment from the debate demonstrated the vulnerability of candidates at a televised debate. Zelizer explains that "saying things the wrong way and not being clear in front of the cameras can be a total political disaster."
  • Considering that Poland was actually under Soviet domination, Ford's assertion only showed how uninformed he was on the subject. Ford retracted his statement after about 24 hours.
  • After Ford's gaffe, Carter's lead widened to 6 percentage points. While there is no polling evidence that Ford's performance in the debate was detrimental to his campaign, Ford lost his momentum and Carter narrowly won the 1976 election.

Research Strategy

To find the desired information, we examined publicly available sources that listed the most impactful, pivotal, decisive, game-changing, or consequential primary or general presidential or vice presidential debates in American history. Since debates that have taken place since the 1950s are of interest, we looked for relevant information among sources that were published in the past 50 years.

We found eight articles that covered the topic, and we tallied the number of times specific debates were mentioned across these articles. Since the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate, the 1992 Bush-Clinton-Perot presidential debate, and the 1976 Carter-Ford presidential debate were the most frequently mentioned debates across these eight articles, we decided to focus on them.

Other frequently mentioned debates include the 1980 Carter-Reagan presidential debate, the 1984 Mondale-Reagan presidential debate, and the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential debate. Noteworthy debates at the vice presidential level or the primary level include the 2008 Biden-Palin vice presidential debate, the 2011 Republican presidential debate involving Rick Perry, and the 2016 Republican presidential debate involving Marco Rubio.
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