Do presidential debates really matter? On occasion, they have had a dramatic effect on the race for the highest elected office in the United States. Just ask Gerald Ford or Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. Most of the time, though, presidential debates merely help to solidify a candidate's base of support and have little effect on public opinion.
See also: Presidential Debate Moderators
Here are three exceptions to that rule, three cases where a gaffe or a well crafted turn of phrase made all the difference in the world.
Kennedy and Nixon
The most important presidential debate in modern history is said to be the first of four meetings between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. The Sept. 26, 1960, debate was the first to be televised.
The presidential debate was notable because Nixon, at the time favored in the race, appeared pail, sickly and sweaty because of a recent stay in the hospital while the youthful and tan Kennedy was relaxed and at ease before a cameras. Kennedy entered the debates with Nixon behind in public-opinion polls but emerged slightly ahed in the race.
It was often said, though unproven, that television viewers overwhelmingly thought Kennedy won the debate but those who listened on the radio and were unaware of Nixon's unhealthful appearance believed he had won. Kennedy went on to win the election in 1960.
Reagan and Carter
The October 1980 president debate between President Jimmy Carter, battered by recession, and California Gov. Ronald Reagan is remembered most for Reagan's now-famous line "There you go again" and also for his question of viewers: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
As in the Kennedy-Nixon debate 20 years earlier, the appearance of the two candidates played a crucial role in elevating Reagan. Viewers saw him as confident and upbeat about the future of the United States, and many believe Carter to be somber. Reagan sealed his debate victory by asking voters about their personal lives amid the recession.
"Next Tuesday all of you will go to the polls, will stand there in the polling place and make a decision. I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago?
"Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we're as strong as we were four years ago? And if you answer all of those questions yes, why then, I think your choice is very obvious as to whom you will vote for. If you don't agree, if you don't think that this course that we've been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have."
Reagan went on to win the president election.
Ford and Carter
An October 1976 presidential debate between President Gerald Ford and Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter proved disastrous to Ford's bid for a second term in the White House. Ford committed a gaffe that has lived on in presidential debate lore over the decades.
Ford famously claimed, erroneously, the following: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." Ford's statement was met with incredulity from moderator Max Frankel of The New York Times and served to tarnish his campaign.
"I'm sorry, I - could I just follow - did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there and in - and making sure with their troops that it's a - that it's a Communist zone, whereas on our side of the line the Italians and the French are still flirting with the possibility of Communism?" Frankel asked.
Ford lost the election.