Kerry Hangs Hopes on Debates

Andrew E. Busch

September 1, 2004

As the presidential debate season gets underway, Democrats are hoping that the debates will propel John Kerry back into an even race with George W. Bush. Indeed, collectively the debates may represent the last opportunity Kerry will have to dramatically change the dynamic of a race that has been slipping away from him, at least without the help of external events.

Kerry supporters can point to several examples of debates significantly affecting a presidential race. In 1960, the less-experienced John F. Kennedy won by holding his own against a haggard-looking Richard Nixon. In 1976, Gerald Ford’s gaffe about Poland not being under Soviet domination helped Jimmy Carter overcome an otherwise lackluster performance. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 debate performance helped seal Carter’s fate. Bill Clinton already led George H.W. Bush at the time of the debates, but used them to confirm his credibility in the minds of voters. And no one can forget 2000, when Al Gore’s exaggerations and aggressiveness helped George W. Bush build a lead that he held through October. In Kerry’s favor it can be said that historically challengers, not incumbents, have been the ones to benefit from debates.

However, there are several reasons why Kerry will be facing an uphill battle in his goal of turning the debates into the launching pad for a comeback.

First, with the exception of Kennedy 44 years ago, the past challengers who benefited from debates were uniformly governors or ex-governors with little or no Washington experience. These candidates, like Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush the younger, faced a gap in stature against presidents and vice presidents. The debates narrowed the stature gap by putting them on the same stage as their more experienced rivals. By contrast, Kerry has served in the Senate for 20 years and suffers from no huge stature gap with Bush. He will not gain just by showing up.

Second, it has long been noted that Kerry is not a personally engaging candidate. In fact, the more voters see of him directly—as in the Democratic National Convention—the less they like him. This does not bode well for the potential impact of his debate performance.

Third, Kerry’s strategic situation is not what his advisors anticipated months ago when they seemed to conclude that Kerry would win by default as long as he made no mistakes. George Bush’s approval ratings are now over 50 percent, Kerry is behind, and the challenger now has to prove why Bush should not be reelected. This means that Kerry must be aggressive, but there is a great risk that he will be too aggressive, as Gore was in 2000. In the 1994 Texas governor’s race, Ann Richards also tried to bait Bush, but failed to rile him and ended up looking mean-spirited herself. If Kerry is not aggressive, the race will be frozen in place with Bush ahead.

Finally, once upon a time Kerry might have hoped that a poor debate performance might be overcome by a positive media spin. Ford and Gore, for example, won their key debates on points, but lost the battle for the post-debate media interpretation Two recent and interconnected phenomena reduce, though do not entirely eliminate, the potential for a hostile media to snatch a Bush defeat from the jaws of victory after the fact. In the aftermath of the CBS Memogate scandal, the media may be forced to exercise caution in trying to help Kerry too blatantly. And if they do not exercise that caution, the alternative media of conservative talk radio, Fox News, and the blogosphere—the same counterweight that exposed Memogate itself—will swing into action again, offering a correction.

It is not inconceivable that Kerry might do better than Bush in one or more debates, nor that Kerry might improve his position as a result of the debates. He is an experienced politician who rarely makes grave errors. Democrats should not expect too much, however. All things considered, they might do well to win a draw. For John Kerry, though, a draw is probably not good enough.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.