The Worst Visual Screw-Ups in Presidential Debate History

Zach Montanaro | September 26, 2016
Font Size

Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past few weeks (oddly enough I wouldn’t blame you), you’ve probably heard that there’s going to be a debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton tonight.

While we’ve heard a lot of debate about the idea of a moderator fact-checking candidates or not, it is also important to remember the other, if not equally important, side of these debates: the visual side.

Ever since the first debate shown on television, candidates have won and lost based on the things they do just as much as they have with things that they said. Don’t believe me? Well let’s take a look back at some of the biggest visual blunders candidates have made during these debates.

Nixon vs. Kennedy, 1960

No better place to start than the classics.

The first presidential debate ever shown on television was a momentous occasion for two reasons. The first being that now these debates could be seen by a much larger group of people all at once as it happened live. The second was for how it completely changed how people saw the two candidates on TV versus simply hearing them on radio.

In this debate, Nixon was widely seen as having a commanding grasp on policy. But he looked awful. He had declined to wear makeup for the debate, was seen sweating and wiping his brow, and overall looked scruffy with a five-o-clock shadow compared to the crisp, clean, handsome rival John F. Kennedy.

While those who listened on the radio might have seen Nixon as the winner, those who saw the debate on TV thought Kennedy did better. This debate forever changed the way candidates debated. Now, they needed to have a grasp on policy and look good doing it.

Reagan vs. Mondale, 1984

At the end of his first term in office, President Reagan was 73 years old, an issue that started to creep into the 1984 campaign. During their first debate, Reagan was stumbling around his answers while his opponent Walter Mondale seemed competent and in-command of his thoughts. So serious was the showing that the Wall Street Journal ran with the headline the next day: “New Question in Race: Is Oldest President Now Showing his Age?”

In a later debate, though, Reagan was ready. When the moderator asked the President about his age possibly affecting him, Reagan replied: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I will not exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

The audience, and even Mondale himself, laughed, and the issue was seemingly put to bed completely. Reagan, of course, won in a landslide that year.

Bush vs. Clinton vs. Perot, 1992

If President Bush (41) didn’t remember the earlier idea of debates also being a visual medium, he got a hard reminder in this debate.

Right as a member of the audience started to ask how the rising national debt had affected them and, if it hadn’t, how they could relate to the average American, Bush was caught checking his watch. It was for only a quick second, almost like a reflex, but it was all that Clinton and the Democrats needed to pounce on the narrative that Bush either couldn’t connect with the everyday American or just didn’t care.

When he was asked much later about what was going through his mind at the time, Bush said, “I hate these debates. I'm so glad it's almost over.”

Bush vs. Gore, 2000

The debate, not the court case.

In the lead up to the debates, Gore’s team was very confident that the former Vice President would look strong and capable next to a, at the time, relatively little known Governor from Texas. While this may or may not have been true, Gore seemingly forgot the rule about debates being visual as well as policy driven.

During their first debate, Gore was caught on camera repeatedly rolling his eyes and shaking his head at statements Bush would make. On top of this, his mic even picked up on him sighing again and again. The entire narrative after the debate was Gore’s apparent arrogance and condescension.

When asked about it years later, Gore said, “The sighs, the sighs, the sighs. Within 18 hours, they had turned perception around to where the entire story was about me sighing. And that's scary. That's scary.”

Another, perhaps funnier, moment came during the third debate between these two.

It was a town hall-style debate, with the two candidates surrounded by an audience who would ask them questions directly. While Bush was answering a question, Gore suddenly stood up from his stool and took a few steps towards Bush, as if he was trying to intimidate him or… something. Bush, however, didn’t miss a beat. Instead of backing down, he paused his speaking to look over at Gore, then gave him a small grin and nod of his head, before turning back and beginning to speak again.

It was a very strange moment, for sure, but cameras caught the audience laughing in reaction and even Gore trying to force a smile.

Instead of knocking Bush off his game, Gore’s actions suddenly looked odd and goofy. In a race that was so incredibly close it wasn’t decided until a month later, it’s hard to argue that Gore’s poor debate performances hurt him in the end.

Obama vs. Romney, 2012

Going into the first debate between these two, President Obama seemingly had the momentum in the race. Romney was coming off of a bitter and drawn-out primary and still trying to convince voters he was someone who could take on Obama.

When the first debate finally came around, Romney came out swinging. As well as being very prepared and having a counter to everything Obama threw at him, he also looked good doing it. Obama, on the other hand, spoke in drawn-out sentences. While Romney looked at Obama each time he spoke, Obama was often looking the other way whenever it was Romney’s turn. Obama was even caught smirking from time to time.

The results weren’t even close. CNN found that a whopping 67% of people thought Romney had won the debate. Romney’s campaign was injected with new momentum that carried all the way to the second debate, when the infamous moment with Monica Crowley halted him.

So, while Trump and Clinton prepare to hammer it out and their campaigns are arguing about the role of the moderators, it would be good for both of them to remember that these debates are as much a visual medium as they are a place to discuss policy.