1960: John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon
Vice President Nixon (R) was favored to win the 1960 presidential election, but the first-ever televised presidential debates gave an unexpected edge to his rival, Senator Kennedy (D).
The first debate on Sept. 26, 1960, pitted a fit and tan Kennedy against a sweaty and pale Nixon. Nixon refused to wear makeup, and his light-colored suit blended with the studio backdrop.
Appearance matters, especially on TV. The four Nixon-Kennedy “great debates” aren’t remembered for the substance of the issues – they spent an inordinate amount of time discussing China’s plan for two tiny Pacific islands – but they gave the lesser-known Kennedy a chance to reach some 70 million voters, who tuned in for the first debate.
That, at least, was Kennedy's view, according to Newton Minow, the man he appointed to chair the Federal Communications Commission. The debates "stoked the public appetite for and the modern campaign's emphasis on the image and the sound byte," Mr. Minton wrote in his book, "Inside the Presidential Debates."
1976: Gerald Ford vs. Jimmy Carter
“There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration,” President Ford (R) said during his second debate with former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter (D) on Oct. 6, 1976.
Unsettled by the president’s statement, panelist Max Frankel of The New York Times asked Ford to clarify whether he believed the Soviet Union was not “using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence,” even though it had troops in most Eastern European countries.
“I don't believe, Mr. Frankel, that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union,” Ford replied. “I don't believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous: It has its own territorial integrity and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.”
Governor Carter knew that Ford had made an egregious misstatement, but chose not to attack him during the debate. He let the news media handle Ford’s blunder.
In an interview for the PBS documentary “Debating Our Destiny,” Mr. Carter told journalist Jim Lehrer that he didn’t know if that statement turned the election against Ford, “but certainly it cost him some votes, and as you know, the election was quite close.”
1980: Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan
Former California governor and actor Mr. Reagan outperformed President Carter in the one debate between the two men on Oct. 28, 1980. His on-camera savvy made him appear confident, in control, and entirely at ease.
“There you go again,” Reagan famously quipped, defusing Carter’s repeated criticism of his initial opposition to Medicare legislation.
Reagan trumped Carter at numerous points during the debate, especially after Carter made the mistake of saying that he asked his daughter, Amy (then age 13), her views on the most important issue facing the nation. (She said nuclear proliferation.)
“It seemed to me he had, because the whole thing sounded, and I think you could almost feel an attitude from the audience on it, that the president was going to make a major policy based on what a child told him,” Reagan told Jim Lehrer during an interview. “And I'm sure he didn't have that in mind, but that's the way it came out.”
Republicans borrowed another memorable Reagan line from the debate, which they (and Democrats) have used repeatedly in subsequent campaigns: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
1988: George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis
Often viewed as a cold technocrat, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) missed a chance to show some emotion during his Oct. 13, 1988, presidential debate with Vice President George H.W. Bush (R) – and gave the second debate of the campaign cycle its defining moment.
“Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Mr. Shaw asked.
“No, I don't, Bernard,” replied Dukakis, without a pause. “And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”
He continued the answer by describing measures he took as governor to lessen violent crime, an austere response that came across to many viewers as cold and uncaring. His approval ratings dropped 7 points that night.
“Dukakis seemed flustered by it and, instead of saying 'I'd kill him if I could get my hands on him,' there was some kind of politically correct answer,” Bush told Mr. Lehrer in the 2008 PBS interview on presidential debates. “And I think that hurt him.”
1992: George Bush vs. Bill Clinton (and Ross Perot)
Three candidates participated in the presidential debates for the first time in 1992: President Bush (R), former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D), and Texas billionaire Ross Perot, running as a third-party candidate.
Mr. Perot had several memorable lines: “The party is over and it’s time for the cleanup crew.” “I don’t have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt. I don’t have any experience in gridlock government where nobody takes responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else.”
But the defining moment of the Bush-Clinton-Perot debates was an unconscious gesture by Bush: During the second debate in Richmond, Va., on Oct. 15, 1992, Bush checked his watch – twice.
The gesture seemed to illustrate Bush's impatience with domestic issues, especially the economy. His presidential approval rating had fallen to about 40 percent as the US struggled to recover from the 1990 recession, and he also reneged on his pledge not to raise taxes.
"They took a little incident like that to show that I was, you know, out of it," Bush said in the 2008 interview with PBS's Mr. Lehrer. "They made a huge thing out of that."
2000: George W. Bush vs. Al Gore
The first debate between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Gore resulted in another defining gesture – the vice president’s overt sighs and eye rolls during Governor Bush’s responses.
Gore "sighed heavily and repeatedly. He shook his head, frowned, rolled his eyes, and sneered," wrote Lehrer in his book "Tension City.”
“Gore was judged the clear loser in the debate, based almost entirely on his body language and not on what he actually said," he added.
Although Gore tried to change his style for the next two debates, he could not escape the first debate mannerisms – the late-night comedy shows repeatedly mocked them.
Bush also had a defining moment in his quip about Gore’s “fuzzy math.”
“I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It's fuzzy math,” Bush said during the first debate.
He used the term “fuzzy math” to deflect Gore’s criticisms of Bush’s plans for tax cuts, Medicare, and how to spend the budget surplus.
1988 vice presidential debate: Dan Quayle vs. Lloyd Bentsen
The recurring criticism of Senator Quayle’s lack of experience – especially if became necessary for him to take over the presidency – became a heated topic during the debate.
Quayle, frustrated with having to answer the same question three times, compared his amount of experience to that of Kennedy when he ran for the office:
“I will be prepared not only because of my service in the Congress, but because of my ability to communicate and to lead,” Quayle said. “It is not just age; it's accomplishments, it's experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.”
Quayle had anticipated that Senator Bentsen might respond in that way, but he had not expected the audience to shout and applaud.
“What I wasn't anticipating was the crowd getting involved as much, and they got very involved, as you can listen on the tape,” Quayle told PBS's Lehrer in 2008. “That I did not expect because there were certain rules or understanding that you had that the crowd was to be there to observe, and not to participate. And they did, and I wasn't prepared for that, but I was somewhat prepared for his line. It was a good line.”