Home Politics The Most Memorable Moments in U.S. Presidential Debates

The Most Memorable Moments in U.S. Presidential Debates

by Scott Kacsmar
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Presidential Debate CNN

Joe Biden and Donald Trump are set to debate again in the 1st presidential debate of 2024. It is a rematch from 2020, which offered one of the all-time debate moments when Biden, growing sick of Trump’s interruptions, exploded with “Will you shut up, man?”. 

But that is hardly the only memorable moment in a U.S. presidential debate. We thought this would be a good time to look over some of the best moments before Trump and Biden do what they can to create another.

Also, take note that the candidate who has a considerable gaffe at a debate has often gone on to lose that election, so read on as we prepare to place our bets on the upcoming election.

1960: JFK Looks Sharp, Richard Nixon Looks Dead

Debates on television did not become a thing until the 1960 U.S. election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It was in the 1950s that Americans started purchasing television sets in large numbers, so it wasn’t until 1960 that a presidential debate made sense to air on that format.

While they debated 4 times that year, it was the 1st debate in Chicago that really gave Kennedy an edge and showed that appearance can in fact matter for a presidential candidate.

Kennedy looked youthful, tan, and spoke with confidence. Nixon, who was recently hospitalized for a staph infection after slamming a car door on his knee, refused makeup and appeared pale, ill, and was profusely sweating under the lights. Some felt his gray suit matched the color of his skin.

Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley quipped about Nixon’s rough appearance in an interview after the debate that “My God, they’ve embalmed him before he even died.”

Some believe this difference in debate appearance helped Kennedy win the election in 1960. There would not be another presidential debate until 1976.

1976: Ford’s Gaffe

Debates returned in 1976 when President Gerald Ford debated Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter. The 2nd debate is infamous for Ford’s gaffe when he said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.”

Keep in mind this was during the Cold War, and the Soviet Union had troops deployed across the Eastern Bloc. It took Ford 6 days to try adding context to what he meant.

Carter eventually won the election in 1976.

1980s: Ronald Reagan Knows His Lines

Ronald Reagan was a former actor before he got into politics, so reading lines in front of an audience should have come naturally to him. His presidential debates in 1980 and 1984 include a few memorable moments.

In the 1980 debate against President Carter, Reagan continued using the phrase “There you go again” to downplay the arguments of Carter. It became a popular phrase and has been used as a debate tactic by many politicians ever since.

Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 election. In 1984, President Reagan’s opponent was Walter Mondale, and the big talking point going into that debate was Reagan’s age. At 73, he was already the oldest candidate ever nominated by a party for president.

Reagan had a great line prepared and hit Mondale with it during the 2nd debate. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” said Reagan to laughter from the crowd.

Even Mondale said he knew at this point he was going to lose the election. Reagan won reelection in a landslide that year. But it sure is funny to see the idea of a 73-year-old running for president to be perceived as an issue. Biden is 81 and Trump just turned 78, making them the 2 oldest candidates in U.S. history.

Neither can use that famous Reagan line on the other.

1988: Dukakis Flubs Strange Question

In the 1988 debate between Republican George H. W. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis, moderator Bernard Shaw offered a bit of a strange question to Governor Dukakis. He asked him if he would be in favor of the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife, Kitty Dukakis. The Governor said no before launching into a textbook explanation of why he does not see capital punishment as an effective measure.

Many thought the question was unfair, but many also did not like that Dukakis gave such a cold, analytical answer. They wanted to see more emotion come out of him, which only played into the reputation that he was too cold and intellectual to be the next president.

Bush, who served as Reagan’s vice president, ended up winning the election in 1988.

1992: Bush Checks His Watch

The 1992 debates were a little different as a 3rd-party independent (Ross Perot) joined the stage with incumbent President Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.

Bush already performed poorly in the 1st debate with only 16% voting in a CNN/USA Today poll that he won the debate. During the 2nd debate, Bush was caught on camera checking his watch while he was asked about the effect national debt has had on him personally.

This led people to believe Bush was disinterested and didn’t care about the question or debate. Clinton went on to win the election in 1992.

2000: Al Gore Can’t Stop Sighing at George Bush

In the 2000 debate, Clinton’s VP Al Gore felt he had a sharper mind and could not be beaten on policy by Republican candidate George W. Bush. But during the debates, Gore would often sigh and react strongly with eyerolls to Bush’s answers, which the camera kept picking up.

Gore also kept talking about putting things like Medicare and Social Security in a lockbox, a word he could not stop using. It got so bad that SNL did a whole cold opening on the debate, and many felt Gore showed up his challenger and came off as an intellectual bully.

Bush ended up winning a tightly contested election in 2020 after a Florida recount went in his favor.

2004: You Forgot Poland

In the 2004 debate, President Bush was trying to defend the 2003 invasion of Iraq against challenger John Kerry, who noted that only Great Britain and Australia backed the United States on that invasion at first.

Bush quipped back with “Well, actually, he forgot Poland,” and it became a humorous catchphrase, shortened to “You forgot Poland” that would have been a big meme in this era.

Bush did go on to win reelection in 2004.

2012: Mitt’s Binders Full of Women

In the 2012 debate, President Barack Obama was debating Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Many felt Obama was poor in the 1st debate, and the polls were very close at the time.

However, in the 2nd debate, Romney failed to capitalize on his momentum from the 1st debate. While Obama performed much stronger, Romney had a gaffe when he answered a question about equal pay for women by bringing up that he had “binders full of women” for cabinet positions that he would seek out.

The comment was criticized for being demeaning to women and became an internet meme. Romney went on to lose the election to Obama.

2016: Trump Hulks Over Hilary

It was at the 2016 presidential debate that we got to see the tactics of Donald J. Trump as he loved to interrupt and talk over Democratic challenger Hilary Clinton. The internet had a field day with the moments where Trump was seemingly stalking behind Clinton on the stage, towering over the smaller woman as she tried to answer questions.

But Trump’s words got him even more attention. Sure, there was criticism of his use of “nasty woman” and “bad hombres”, but the most viral moment of the debates came in the 2nd one where Clinton was remarking that the country is lucky someone with Trump’s temperament was not in office to which Trump quickly responded, “because you’d be in jail.”

The audience laughed that one up, and that might be part of the reason why there is no audience for the 2024 debate. There weren’t any in 2020 because of COVID.

Trump made Clinton eat her words when he did in fact take over office by winning the 2016 election, a massive upset.

2020: Will You Shut Up, Man?

We mentioned in the intro that the 2020 debate was infamous for Joe Biden losing his cool after getting constantly interrupted by Trump in the 1st debate, only to chime in with “Will you shut up, man?”.

That was a classic, but it was hardly the only memorable moment these candidates produced in their chaotic debates that year.

Biden also said “You’re the worst president America has ever had” at one point to Trump. But perhaps the most pivotal moment of the 1st debate was when moderator Chris Wallace and Biden implored Trump to denounce white supremacy groups such as the Proud Boys.

In his attempt to do so, Trump said “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by”, a moment that felt more like a call to arms by some rather than any condemnation on Trump’s behalf.

In the end, Biden defeated Trump in the 2020 election after several days of counting the votes during a pandemic. We can only imagine what is in store for the 2024 debates and elections between these candidates.

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Scott Kacsmar
NFL football picks are Scott Kacsmar's expertise, serving as his main focus. He has contributed to various sports websites and blogs, such as NBC Sports, ESPN Insider, FiveThirtyEight, and, JoeWager. Originating from Pittsburgh, Scott maintains a love-hate connection with the Pirates.

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