Incumbents usually fare poorly in first debate

With the Vice-Presidential debate behind us, all that remains of the mano-a-mano matchups before Election Day are the final two presidential debates.

According to a Pew research poll, before the first presidential debate, 51 percent of respondents believed that President Barack Obama would win. Many of us were surprised at his dismal performance, but perhaps we shouldn’t have been.

Alan Schroeder wrote in his 2008 book, “Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV,” “With the exception of Bill Clinton in 1996, the incumbent is generally thought to have faced the more difficult task.”

Indeed (excepting Bill Clinton in 1996) since the first televised presidential debate in 1960 when John F. Kennedy beat Vice President Richard Nixon, the incumbent has never “won” the first debate in a televised series. The 1976 debate between challenger Jimmy Carter and incumbent Gerald Ford was a draw and the 1980 debate between Carter and Ronald Reagan was won by Reagan. Four years later, when Reagan was challenged by Walter Mondale, William Safire wrote, “Hitherto-smug Republicans are wondering what to do now that Ronald Reagan has been creamed by Walter Mondale in the opening debate.”

The next incumbent versus challenger debate was in 1992 when the winner of the first debate seemed to be Ross Perot with 47 percent of the “instant reaction” vote, followed by Bill Clinton with 30 percent and George H.W. Bush with 16 percent.

That same poll showed that 53 percent of viewers believed Kerry had won the first debate in the 2004 presidential race. Only to 37 percent believed incumbent president George W. Bush had won.

Of course, Gallup’s “instant reaction” poll from the first presidential election of 2012 was historic in its agony and ecstasy: A whopping 72 percent believed challenger Mitt Romney did a better job than Obama and only 20 percent believed Obama did the better job.

Can Obama come back? Reagan still beat Mondale and Bush still beat Kerry, so losing a first debate isn’t necessarily fatal so long as the president can rehabilitate himself in subsequent debates.

The next Obama-Romney event is a town-hall style debate about “foreign and domestic policy.”  Romney had to run pretty far to the right on issues like women’s reproductive rights, gay marriage and immigration to get the Republican nomination but hasn’t discussed those issues much since then. The town hall debate would be a good place for Obama to put those issues front and center to remind voters that there are non-economic implications for a Romney presidency.

Foreign policy is the subject of the last debate and an area where Obama has traditionally polled well ahead of Romney. Although Obama’s fumbles in Libya have brought those numbers down, Romney’s comments about Palestinians not wanting peace and his recent difficulties articulating what he would do differently as president still make this a better subject for Obama than the economy.

From an historical and practical perspective, Obama can still rebound and let his loss at the October 3 debate join the list of first-debate fumbles by incumbents.

Barack ObamaBay Area NewsBill ClintonGeorge W. BushMelissa Griffin

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