Presidential debates: A search for the moment to remake the race

Dan Guild is a lawyer and project manager who lives in New Hampshire. In addition to writing for Bleeding Heartland, he has written for CNN and Sabato’s Crystal Ball, most recently here. He also contributed to the Washington Post’s 2020 primary simulations. Follow him on Twitter @dcg1114.

This post updates a piece I wrote in 2020.

At this moment the race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is close; you could argue it is the closest in U.S. history. To say it is unique is to state the obvious. This is the first presidential campaign in the modern era where both candidates have held the office of president. It is unique in another way too: many Americans did not want this race.

As the data below shows, incumbents typically do poorly in the first debate. If that trend holds this year, it bodes ill for Biden—but this time may be very different.

The reason challengers tend to win the first debate is the event allows them to consolidate their partisan support. We saw this happen in 2012, when Mitt Romney gained significantly against President Barack Obama, simply by increasing his margin among Republicans and Republican leaning independents.

This time, though, it is Biden who has struggled to consolidate his party’s base.

This graphic comes from Gallup, though I could cite other data as well. These findings highlight the opportunity—and the danger—for the president. A good performance tonight may allow Biden to close the gap below. A bad one and this gap may become permanent, creating enormous turnout problems among key elements of the Democratic base.

Since the advent of television, politics and history have occasionally turned on a few moments. Seldom do they last longer than 60 seconds (like wit, television values brevity above all else).

Senator Joe McCarthy, and the moment he led, were stopped when he was asked, “Have you no decency, sir?” During the Watergate hearings, Senator Howard Baker summed up the entire scandal when he asked, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

Some of the game-changing events have happened in debates. Ronald Reagan revived his flagging campaign in 1980 during a debate about a debate. Later that year, he uttered two phrases that seemed to sum up the entire election. “There you go again,” he said in response to President Jimmy Carter’s attack on his position on Social Security. (During Reagan’s presidency, Carter would be proven right.)

But even more memorable is Reagan’s close, from the final debate in late October 1980:

The country would answer the question with a resounding no.

This chart summarizes the impact of presidential debates since 1976.

A couple of things to note on the day of the first Trump/Biden debate:

Debate bounces often don’t last. The debates had a pretty big effect on the last two presidential races. Hillary Clinton led by 2.6 percent going into the first 2016 debate. Her lead would climb to more 8 percent after the second debate. But her pre-debate average was very close to her final popular vote margin (2.1 percent).

The same was true in 2012: Obama led by 3.8 percent going into the first debate. He even trailed after the first debate. But in the end, his final advantage in popular vote share was nearly identical to his pre-debate average.

Incumbents beware. Obama, George W. Bush, and Reagan in 1984 all saw significant declines after their first debate. In Reagan’s case, the cause was a poor performance and concerns that he was too old. (That concern was borne out in some ways during his second term.) John Kerry and Romney consolidated their bases in the first debates of 2004 and 2012, and both races closed significantly.

Practice your one-liners. “There you go again.” “You sir, are no Jack Kennedy.” The best punch is one short enough for a TV news clip.

Sometimes it isn’t the answer, it is the question. 1988 nominee Michael Dukakis never recovered from a question about the death penalty. CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked what the Democrat would do if his wife were raped and murdered. The unusual question seemed to call for a visceral response—which Dukakis did not provide.

Debates matter. President Gerald Ford closed the gap after his first debate with Jimmy Carter in 1976. George W. Bush changed the trajectory of the 2000 race in his debates against Al Gore. It often seems as if the debates allow a candidate to consolidate their party’s vote. That certainly happened in 1976 and 2012.

These are the polling averages before and after each debate. In some years it is not possible to differentiate between polling after one debate and before the next one.

About the Author(s)

Dan Guild

  • This Democrat not voting for Biden - look at RFK Jr, Chas Oliver, Jill Stein

    This Democrat is not pleased with Biden and will be voting third party. To call Biden a lackluster candidate would be putting it mildly. Senility on full display and a Southern border that’s a dumpster fire. How many Americans need to be murdered by illegal aliens before the tone deaf administration admits their failed policies? DMR/IA Poll has Biden 18% behind DJT in Iowa and this is indeed effecting downticket races. Dem congressional candidates behind in all 4 IA districts from 12% to 25%.

  • tonight's debate was elder abuse

    Its clear President Biden is not up to the job – should be home fishing with the grandkids. Ninety minutes of elder abuse on CNN in full view of the country.

  • Biden is no longer with us

    I knew Biden was declining from personal interaction during his 2020 Iowa campaign. It’s amazing but expectable how four years of the toughest job on Earth have turned him into the shadow of a person we saw last night. All those who hid the obvious truth that our Commander is senile should reflect on how this happened. including BleedingHeartland.

  • reality check - not a doctored video

    Had coffee with my shop steward this morning. Only question is how many fellow democrats lose due to President Biden being the nominee. As they say, “the cake been baked.”

  • Here is a quote from Heather Cox Richardson about the debate.

    “This was not a debate. It was Trump using a technique that actually has a formal name, the Gish gallop, although I suspect he comes by it naturally. It’s a rhetorical technique in which someone throws out a fast string of lies, non-sequiturs, and specious arguments, so many that it is impossible to fact-check or rebut them in the amount of time it took to say them. Trying to figure out how to respond makes the opponent look confused, because they don’t know where to start grappling with the flood that has just hit them.

    It is a form of gaslighting, and it is especially effective on someone with a stutter, as Biden has. It is similar to what Trump did to Biden during a debate in 2020. In that case, though, the lack of muting on the mics left Biden simply saying: “Will you shut up, man?” a comment that resonated with the audience. Giving Biden the enforced space to answer by killing the mic of the person not speaking tonight actually made the technique more effective.”

  • America, My Country ‘Tis of Thee

    I sorry Joe did not do well. He was overwhelmed. The race is about a leader and his/her vast team of Secretaries, staff, and thousands of people to implement her/his vision. Biden’s is a free and fair nation sad for democracy. Trump makes no bones about his vision: authoritarian up and down patterned after Putin, Viktor Orbán. etc. which would require a thousand immediate firings, plus a Cabinet full of the country’s most evil people. Trump spoke to Time Magazine about his whole agenda, a summary of Project 2025. I will have a choice in November between visions for the balance of my like in the USA. I will vote for a 100 year old person who honors truth and America’s way of governing, and his team of progressive leaders. He knows right from wrong.

  • 25th amendment

    Last night I was ashamed to be a Democrat. Shame on those who are pretending that our president is of sound mind and body. Time to enact the 25th amendment.