Make or break: the defining moments of US presidential debates

Joe Biden and Donald Trump will debate on Thursday for the first time this election cycle, and it holds the potential for some history-making moments.

Debates can inform voters on both the issues and temperaments of the candidates, potentially swaying an undecided voter toward one candidate’s direction. They can also make for good TV, creating soundbites that resonate for decades to come.

From the candidates’ physical appearances to gaffes to planned attacks to off-the-cuff retorts, here are some memorable moments from US presidential debate history.

1960: The first and possibly still the most famous televised American presidential debate pitted the telegenic Democrat John F Kennedy against Republican vice-president Richard Nixon, creating defining moments for both presidential debates and television itself. The clammy Nixon was recovering from illness and had a five o’clock shadow but refused makeup. TV viewers are said to have judged Kennedy the winner, whereas radio listeners gave it to Nixon or called it a draw. Kennedy won a narrow election. He was assassinated three years later.

1976: Republican president Gerald Ford, who succeeded Nixon after the Watergate scandal, had been closing the gap on Democrat Jimmy Carter but then remarked: “There is no Soviet domination of eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” It was seen as a critical gaffe in the context of the cold war and Carter went on to win the election.

1980: Carter accused Republican Ronald Reagan of planning to cut Medicare healthcare funding for the elderly. Reagan, who had complained that Carter was misrepresenting his positions on numerous issues, said with a chuckle: “There you go again.” The audience erupted. The duel attracted 80.6 million viewers, the most ever for a presidential debate at that time, according to Nielsen.

1984: Reagan, at 73 the oldest president in US history at the time, took the sting out of the issue of his age during the second debate with the Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, 56, with this line: “I want you to know that, also, I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Reagan was re-elected.

1988: Democrat Michael Dukakis, taking on the Republican vice-president George HW Bush, was asked whether he would support the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife. “No, I don’t, Bernard,” the Massachusetts governor replied. “And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.” He was criticised as cold and unemotional and lost the election.

1988: In the vice-presidential debate, Bush’s running mate Dan Quayle compared himself with John F Kennedy. The Democratic senator Lloyd Bentsen replied shot back: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” It is probably the most famous line ever uttered in a vice-presidential debate and has been much parodied since.

1992: In a three-way contest with Democrat Bill Clinton and businessman Ross Perot, President George HW Bush made the fatal mistake of looking at his watch. It gave the impression of a haughty, aloof incumbent who did not want to be there and took too much for granted. Bush later admitted what had been on his mind: “Only 10 more minutes of this crap.” He lost to Clinton.

2000: Democratic vice-president Al Gore went into the debate leading in the polls but sighed loudly when his rival, Republican George W Bush, spoke. In another incident, he was criticised for invading Bush’s personal space when Bush strolled forward and Gore rose and moved towards his rival, as if looking for a fight. Bush dismissed him with a nod and won a close and bitterly disputed election.

2012: President Barack Obama was widely felt to have “phoned in” his first lackluster debate performance against Republican Mitt Romney, who performed above expectations. But in the second debate, Romney, responding to a question about gender pay equality, said he had “binders full of women” as candidates for cabinet posts. The phrase became a meme on social media and Romney lost in November.

2016: With no incumbent in the mix, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton debated like an outsider and a seasoned public servant, respectively. In perhaps the most enduring soundbite, Clinton hit at Trump’s failure to pay income taxes in the few tax returns that were public at the time. “That makes me smart,” Trump retorted. He also called people coming into the US “bad hombres”, botching the pronunciation of the word. And in one eerie moment, Trump stood close behind Clinton as she answered an audience question, which Clinton later wrote made her skin crawl. Trump also refused to say whether he’would accept the results of the election – which he would go on to win in 2016.

2020: Trump, now the incumbent, debated Joe Biden in his characteristically testy way, replete with interruptions. At one point, an exasperated Biden pleaded, “Will you shut up, man?”. That memorable line came as the debate schedule was affected by a new virus, Covid-19, spreading through the country. Trump tested positive for the virus, leading to the cancellation of the second debate. His former chief of staff claimed Trump tested positive before the first debate but didn’t disclose it, a claim that Trump called “fake news”. Biden went on to win the election.

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