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How Presidential Debates Have Impacted Incumbents


Tomorrow night marks a major event in the presidential campaign - the first of three presidential debates between President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden. And in recent history, sitting presidents who are up for reelection often struggle in their first debate. NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro says that's something President Trump has to look out for. Domenico joins us now to talk about it. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks for having me.

MOSLEY: So walk us through how presidents of the past have actually struggled during first debates.

MONTANARO: Well, since 1980, five of the six presidents up for reelection have had bad first debates. Some recovered to win reelection; some didn't. And in the first and only debate between Carter and Reagan, Carter had a pretty tough time. He was lampooned for saying that he'd asked his daughter what she thought was the most important issue facing the country coming into the debate. Nuclear weapons, she happened to say. And then at the end of the debate, Reagan delivered this searing message.


RONALD REAGAN: Next Tuesday, all of you will go to the polls. You'll 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?

MOSLEY: Oh, famous line.

MONTANARO: Right. And that sunk Carter, especially because the debate took place just days before the election, and Carter had no chance to recover.

MOSLEY: OK. So Jimmy Carter lost that election badly, as we know, but he was followed by Reagan, who was reelected in a landslide. Did he face any of these challenges?

MONTANARO: Yeah. Reagan actually did struggle in his first reelection debate, too. He meandered in some answers, raising questions about his age. He had a much better second debate, making that famous joke about how he's not going to exploit his opponent's youth and inexperience. George H.W. Bush infamously checked his watch in the second debate in 1992, and in the first one, he tried to land a punch about Bill Clinton's character. It backfired. Here's Clinton.


BILL CLINTON: When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people's patriotism, he was wrong. He was wrong. And a senator from Connecticut stood up to him named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism. I was opposed to the war. But I love my country. And we need a president who'll bring this country together, not divide it. We had enough division. I want to lead a unified country.

MONTANARO: And Clinton, by the way, was the only president not to struggle in his reelection debates. After Clinton, George W. Bush in 2004 came across as smirking and somewhat peevish when talking about the Iraq War, which was not going well at the time. And even Barack Obama seemed out of practice and too standoffish in his first debate with Mitt Romney. That night actually was Obama's wedding anniversary, and he made reference to it but seemed like he'd rather be somewhere else, frankly. And Romney got the better of him even on that.


MITT ROMNEY: And congratulations to you, Mr. President, on your anniversary. I'm sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me. So I...


ROMNEY: Congratulations.

MOSLEY: Domenico, any particular reason as to why presidents seem to struggle this way?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I talked to Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University who wrote a book on presidential debates. And he said that what happens with an incumbent president often is that they spend four years in office being deferred to and agreed with, and it can be tough for staff to challenge them directly. So by the time they get up there on the debate stage, they're really not used to being spoken to so forcefully and directly. And they're, by definition, out of practice. Of course, President Trump, a little different - he's got lots of practice being embattled, lots of questions about the rigor of his debate prep, but Trump is Trump. He's basically the same person in every venue. There are risks now that he's president and has to defend his record rather than an outsider just throwing stones.

MOSLEY: That's NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Thank you so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.