Here we go again.
Voters, pundits and political junkies will be glued to Wednesday night’s presidential debate to see more than just a back-and-forth on national defense, the economy and other issues.
Of equal interest will be the potential zingers, one-liners, jokes, gaffes and blunders that have made debates timeless pieces of political pop culture.
Few remember who technically won the 1984 debate between incumbent Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Walter F. Mondale, but Reagan’s famous quip — “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” — is viewed as arguably the single greatest line uttered during a presidential contest and is by far the most memorable moment of that year’s debate circuit.
Democrat Lloyd Bentsen likely would have gone down in history as just another unsuccessful vice presidential contender were it not for his “You’re no Jack Kennedy” quip, aimed at Republican Dan Quayle, who often countered shots at his youth by boasting that he had as much experience as John F. Kennedy when he became president.
The 2000 contests aren’t remembered for their policy content, but rather for Al Gore’s audible sighing as his Republican challenger, George W. Bush, answered questions.
Mr. Gore’s determined stroll toward Mr. Bush and Mr. Bush’s casual nod of recognition became the lasting image of the 2000 debates.
Those moments and countless others, analysts say, encapsulate why the nation’s political followers treat debates as must-see TV.
Few tune in to learn the nuances of Republican Mitt Romney’s foreign policy or President Obama’s plan for technological investment. Instead, we watch to see whether a candidate falls on his face or skewers his opponent’s argument with a perfectly timed put-down.
Those instances become front-page news and usually push substantive discussions to the back burner.
“For the millions of Americans who don’t watch the debates, their view of the debate comes from the sound bite,” said Robert Watson, a presidential scholar and professor of American studies at Lynn University, the host of the third and final presidential debate this year.
“It’s unfiltered. These debates are tailor-made that a gaffe or a zinger will live iconically forever,” Mr. Watson said. “Today, with social media, every gaffe by Romney or Obama is going to be tweeted and retweeted. This stuff develops legs. It has a life of its own.”
The debate gaffe is most damaging, analysts say, when it reinforces or confirms a damning stereotype.
In 2004, for instance, Mr. Bush’s campaign was predicated on convincing voters that Democrat John F. Kerry was weak on defense and wasn’t as trustworthy when it came to protecting the American people.
The narrative began to take hold, largely because of Mr. Kerry’s opponents’ “swift-boating” ad campaign.
But the Vietnam War veteran and senator from Massachusetts did himself few favors during a debate on foreign policy when he said U.S. military action first must pass a “global test,” a comment interpreted to mean that Mr. Kerry wouldn’t act unless European and other allies approved.
Fair or not, the comment did serious damage to his chances. Mr. Kerry’s image as a weak-on-defense Democrat stuck, and Mr. Bush won re-election decisively.
Similarly, Republican Gerald R. Ford torpedoed his hopes to remain in office during a 1976 debate with Democrat Jimmy Carter. Mr. Ford infamously said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” a remark that most Americans knew to be false.
By vehemently assuring the public something clearly untrue, Mr. Ford reinforced the perception that he didn’t have a clue, said Allan Louden, chairman of the department of communication at Wake Forest University.
“I don’t know what’s going on, and I fall down airplane steps — that was the prevailing narrative [about Ford], so his comments were interpreted that way,” Mr. Louden said. “Mistakes are a dime a dozen. The mistakes that matter are the ones that prove a narrative, what people already believe.”
For the hundreds of hours of work that the Romney and Obama campaigns have put into debate preparation, both are aware that a major misstep will overshadow economic plans and other policy outlines.
Each candidate hopes to deliver the next morning’s sound bite, not be on the receiving end of it.
“They’ve got the best speechwriters and best comedians money can by. They’ve got their one-liners planned, and we’ll hear a few of them. It’s just inescapable,” Mr. Watson said.
Despite Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s tendency to commit gaffes, his Republican opponent, Paul Ryan, said Sunday that he doesn’t expect any such mistakes when the two square off later this month.
“He’s fast on the cuff. He’s a witty guy. He knows who he is,” Mr. Ryan said of Mr. Biden. “I’m not counting on a gaffe.”