09/28/2012 11:52 am ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

Debate Upside Is Debatable

Debates are rarely game changers. That's bad news for Mitt Romney, who is depending on the debates to turn his campaign around. The most likely way that would happen is if President Obama made some kind of unforced error. That's a risky thing to count on.

In 2004, CNN polled viewers after every presidential debate and asked them who won. The answer, after all three debates: John Kerry. Voters were in agreement that Kerry was a better debater, and certainly more articulate, than George W. Bush. The debates did make the race closer, but Bush sustained a narrow lead. Most people don't vote for you for president because you're a better debater.

Debates have a tendency to do more harm than good. Richard Nixon was damaged in his first debate with John F. Kennedy in 1960. Nixon looked tired and unshaven -- he refused to use makeup -- against a youthful and vigorous Kennedy. Forty years later, Al Gore's condescending attitude, his theatrical sighing and his invasion of his opponent's space put voters off, in contrast to the chummy George W. Bush.

When it comes to unforced errors, nothing quite matches President Gerald Ford's premature liberation of Eastern Europe in a 1976 debate -- "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration." Michael Dukakis came close in a 1988 debate when moderator Bernie Shaw asked him whether he would favor the death penalty if his wife were brutally raped and murdered. Dukakis's response was shockingly dispassionate: "No I don't, Bernard, and I think you know that I have opposed the death penalty during all of my life."

The first President Bush doomed himself at a 1992 debate without saying a word. At the first-ever town hall debate, the camera caught Bush looking at his watch. That shot confirmed a damaging stereotype of Bush -- that he was out-of-touch with ordinary Americans.

And who can forget the savaging Dan Quayle experienced at the hands of Lloyd Bentsen in the 1988 vice presidential debate? "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Yet Quayle, not Bentsen, got elected. Which proves that when Americans cast their presidential ballots, they are not voting for vice president.

Ronald Reagan created a problem for himself in the second 1984 debate with his rambling and incoherent closing statement (something about driving down the Pacific coast and thinking about the "terrible destructive power" of nuclear weapons). It led the press to ask whether the president was getting senile. (Reagan eventually did develop Alzheimer's disease, long after he left office.) Reagan used the next debate to recover with a quip: "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

There are fewer instances where the debates clearly boosted a candidate. That may have happened with Kennedy in 1960. He remains the youngest president ever elected for the first time, and voters in 1960 had serious doubts about Kennedy's experience. Especially at the peak of the Cold War. Kennedy stood his ground in the debates against the far better-known and more experienced Nixon.

The most famous instance of a game-changing debate was the one and only debate in 1980 between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Voters were deeply dissatisfied with Carter, but also frightened of Reagan. They feared he might start a war or throw old people out in the snow. Reagan used the one debate -- less than a week before election day -- to recast the election as a referendum on the incumbent ("Ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?"). And to prove to voters that he was not a monster ("There you go again"). After the debate, the floodgates burst. Millions of voters who did not want to reelect Carter but had serious reservations about Reagan suddenly felt free to vote for the Republican.

Typically, debates are more important for lesser known candidates like Kennedy in 1960 and Reagan in 1980. Standing on the same stage with an incumbent president or vice president gives the opponent presidential stature. That's why third party candidates are desperate to be included in the debates. The debates certainly helped Ross Perot in 1992. Instead of suffering the usual fate of third party candidates -- seeing their vote get squeezed down at the end of the campaign -- Perot saw his vote go up (to 19 percent).

Romney has the most at stake in the debates this year. He is the non-incumbent. Romney's problem is that the more people have gotten to know him, the less they like him. According to the Pew poll, Romney is the only presidential candidate of either party since at least 1988 to be regarded unfavorably by voters this close to the election. It's hard to see what Romney can do in the debate to make himself more likeable and trustworthy. Reagan did it, but he was an experienced actor.

Romney will have to rely on Obama to make an unforced error. This president has occasionally done that. Most recently in July, when Obama said, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that." Republicans organized their entire convention in Tampa around the theme "We built it." Obama's remark was certainly unfortunate and inartful. But it doesn't seem to have done any lasting damage. Republicans got no bounce at all out of their convention this year.