Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

Why presidents often struggle in their first re-election debates — and how Biden is getting ready

By 37ci3 Jun20,2024

Life as a Commander-in-Chief “It’s kind of a protected bubble,” says presidential debate historian Alan Schroeder. “People have been saying ‘Mr. President’ for four years,” said the Democratic strategist.

Then comes the first debate of the re-election campaign — the shock of a personal confrontation with a hungry opponent has caused presidents for decades to lose or underperform in this primary, casting doubt on their chances of a second term.

It’s a trend President Joe Biden will focus on cutting short when he and former President Donald Trump meet in Atlanta for a CNN debate next week, while Trump, like many opponents before him, will try to win back Biden.

In interviews, nearly a half-dozen former campaign officials and debate pundits explained why so many incumbents tend to stumble in early debates and how they think Biden can avoid those pitfalls. As debate preparations ramped up, a Biden campaign official cast doubt on the idea that the historic trend would hold for Biden, who has often disputed Trump and forcefully condemned him.

The campaign can’t imagine a world where Biden expects respect from Trump on the debate stage, the official said.

Trump’s top adviser, Jason Miller, said in a statement that Trump would be ready for the debate, criticized Biden’s preparations for the confrontation as “programmed” by advisers, and said that Trump “does multiple tough interviews every week and gives long rally speeches while standing up.” “

‘Anxious,’ ‘confused,’ ‘shy’

President Jimmy Carter was widely acknowledged to have botched his first and only debate in 1980 against Ronald Reagan.

“Are you better than you were four years ago?” Reagan defied voters on what became a damaging issue for Carter’s campaign.

Incumbents’ historically difficult first-debate performances stem from the respect they enjoy in the Oval Office, experts say.

“Once a president is in office, and especially after he’s been in office for four years, they’re kind of in a protected bubble where they don’t hear a lot of conflicting information,” said Schroeder, who has written a book on presidential history. debates.

The official on the debate stage “may almost require some kind of transition to being a normal citizen,” he said.

Samuel Popkin, who portrayed Reagan during Carter’s debate preparations, said: “Every president thinks, ‘I know how to run a presidential campaign because I won a few years ago.’

Popkin studied what Reagan said and wrote a memoir on how to deflate his stories. But when it came to rehearsing the debate with Popkin, who played Reagan, Carter was “very nervous” and “embarrassed,” Popkin said.

Popkin described the intense workout in his book The Candidate, writing that Carter was “confused” and suggested he stop after only 11 minutes of practice.

“The president seemed lonely and vulnerable as he heard Reagan’s criticism in front of his wife, closest friends and inner circle,” Popkin wrote.

Four years later, Reagan was a criticized official, The New York Times reported that his advisers one sayscary.

“Even Bill Clinton, who was a really good debater, his first debate against incumbent Bob Dole in 1996 was not his finest moment by any stretch of the imagination,” Schroeder said.

Former campaign officials have emphasized the importance of confronting incumbents with their opponents rather than defending their records.

“Typically incumbents have a harder job in some ways because they’re defending a sitting record,” said Sara Fagen, who worked on President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.

Voters believed that Democratic candidate John Kerry won the first debate against Bush by a margin of 2 to 1. Pew Research Center request.

John Kerry and George W. Bush.
John Kerry and George W. Bush at a 2004 presidential debate in Coral Gables, Florida.Ron Edmonds / AP

In the survey, qquestion asking voters to use one word to describe the candidates’ performances, the top negative word for Bush was “defense.”

“For most of the current presidents, you want to make the election by choice, not by referendum,” Fagen said.

President Barack Obama faced a similar calculus in preparation for the 2012 debates.

“If it’s a referendum on the incumbent, the incumbent usually loses,” Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina told Obama. “If it’s a choice between two candidates, you win.”

Messina said he instructed Obama not to “chasing the rabbit,” that is, to fall into the hole in self-defense. He said that during several questions of Obama’s first debate against Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney in 2012, he became defensive.

Nearly two-thirds of voters thought Romney had the upper hand over Obama in the first debate CNN and Pew requests.

Despite Obama’s preparation, he was “rusty,” Schroeder said. “He seemed a little nervous about the whole exercise.”

After the first debate, Messina said Obama was “more in the spotlight.”

“The president blew one of the last debate sessions before the first debate,” Messina said. “After the first debate, he definitely did not do that.”

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney shake hands.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama at the 2012 second presidential debate in Hempstead, NY.Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images file

Messina recalled seeing a video of himself in the spin room after the second debate with “a glow about me.”

“I’m like a 10-year-old kid who got a free beer for the first time because I was so happy because he ran the choice story over and over again,” Messina said.

The Biden campaign also digs into the election story, reviewing Biden’s debate preparation, noting that he has “become more strident in his recent remarks about Trump and plans to bring the topic into the debate while still portraying himself as wise and wise.” Trump is a stable leader in contrast to chaos and division.”

Just a week before the first debate, the Biden campaign announced a $50 million advertising campaign, part of which is going to television broadcasts. blow a contrast Between the characters of Biden and Trump.


Next month’s debate holds a unique place in history, not just because of its unprecedented early date. The two Oval Office candidates will face each other for the first time. It’s unclear how much debate alone swayed voting preferences in November.

“Ultimately, it’s been very difficult for anyone to demonstrate that the speeches in the presidential debates changed voters’ choices,” said Lynn Vavrek, a professor of American politics and public policy at UCLA.

Fagen said voters are “already entrenched” ahead of November. He pointed to each candidate’s challenges and the presence of both in the presidential race, saying the debate was “probably more important than the last election just because of the dynamics of the race.”

According to the poll, Biden and Trump are neck and neck. There is also a broad and ideologically diverse electorate that dislikes either candidate but may choose one of them in the fall.

The closeness of the race means that the debate doesn’t need to swing a large swath of the electorate to have a noticeable impact.

“Anything can be key when you’re in situations where you’re talking about a few votes being key,” Vavreck said.

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