After Mitt Romney's debate victory, everyone started speculating why it happened. Former Vice President Al Gore even blamed Obama's performance on Denver's high altitude. But could it be attributed to the fact that it was the first debate, which supposedly goes to the challenger? Five LaGrange College political science majors and I decided to investigate.
1976: I found that the first night's debate did not provide a clear winner, as technical glitches leading to 30 minutes of dead air on television marred the first night. But Jimmy Carter won the second debate with Gerald Ford and attributed his presidential election victory to his debate victories.
1980: Loishirl Hall wrote: "During the 1980 presidential campaign, many expected the president at the time, Jimmy Carter, to win the presidential debate. The polls after the debate showed Jimmy Carter as the victor, as initially presumed. This outcome did not, however, influence the election because Ronald Reagan ended up winning that presidential election -- beating the incumbent."
1984: Sean McNamee investigated the Reagan-Mondale debates. He found: "Researching the 1984 Presidential Debate between incumbent Ronald Reagan and challenger former Vice President Walter Mondale. it is fairly obvious that President Reagan came out on the losing end of that debate." The debate, like most first presidential debates, focused mostly on domestic policy. Reagan was left without response to many of the attacks that came from his challenger. CNN's AllPolitics states that many were questioning Reagan's age (73) at the time. CNN polls show that Reagan lost the debate by as much as 20 percentage points. Thi, however gave Mondale only a few points in the overall polls.
As in the 2012 election, the first debate in 1984 features the incumbent getting decisively beaten by an opponent who seemed to have a stronger urge to exploit his competitor. Mondale, like Romney, was in attack mode throughout the first debate, while President Obama and former President Reagan seemed almost too relaxed in their deliveries. President Obama can either rebound as Reagan did in his second debate, or continue to lose ground in this election.
1992: Isaiah Whitfield had this to say about reasons for challenger successes: "It is often believed that challengers have a clear advantage in the first presidential debate because they only have to make promises to the public, whereas the incumbent has to defend what his administration has already accomplished. This is especially true in the issue of domestic policy when actions put into place under a four-year term do not display instant results."
And how did that apply to the 1992 debate?
"According to CNN, Bill Clinton took advantage of this is 1992 by focusing his statements on the poor economic state of the country during that time," Whitfield reported. "Bush, on the other hand, focused more on Clinton's moral standings and the fight for world peace. Even Ross Perot, the third-party candidate, criticized the current administration's relationships with interest groups and lobbyists. The challengers here focused on what they saw as failures of the current administration while the incumbent challenged the character of his opponent. Interestingly enough, Perot was seen as the victor of the first debate, probably because he did a great job of attacking the current administration's policies. In addition, neither of the other candidates attacked Perot very well."
1996: We all assume that Clinton wiped the floor with Bob Dole in the first presidential debate in 1996, as he did on Election Day. But Anthony Jenkins found the following information: "In the 1996 presidential debate, incumbent Bill Clinton and Senator Bob Dole ended up a tie in most people's views. Dole did have a small increase in points, as shown in a Gallup poll."
2004: As for the Bush-Kerry debate, Matt James looked at this case, finding: "On September 30, 2004, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry met at the University of Miami for their first debate, which centered on foreign policy. This was a break from traditional practice but the show went on. At the end of the night ABC news reported that Kerry had won by a nine-point margin among registered voters. This number goes against the theory, but an extraneous factor may be the cause of the figure. This was a televised debate between presidential candidates that occurred during wartime. Perhaps the unpopularity of the war gave an advantage for Kerry. However, Bush ended up winning the election by 51% to 48%, according to CNN."
I have to admit being surprised that Carter was considered the winner of the 1980 debate, while Dole tied Clinton. Some of these are attributable to how the elections turn out, when we assume if someone on Election Day won big, then he must have won the debates as well.
At least Obama can say he's in some good company with presidents who lost the first presidential debate.
John A. Tures, associate professor of political science at LaGrange College; firstname.lastname@example.org. Students Loishirl Hall, Matt James, Anthony Jenkins, Sean McNamee and Isaiah Whitfield contributed to this article.