February 7, 2016
We won’t know for sure until the voters have their say, but it’s possible Marco Rubio just had the most significant presidential debate choke in American history. These are hard things to measure (though I’ll try), and less than 24 hours from the event it’s hard to have proper perspective.
Still, it’s potentially the perfect choke. There are a few components necessary to create such an epic mistake:
The ideal choke has an element of “I can’t believe he/she just said that!” Debating isn’t that easy. People at home don’t normally wish it was them on the stage. When regular citizens are yelling at the TV screen because they know they would have answered better, you’re choking. Extra points for dragging out the mistake when given a chance to cut your losses.
Can a 30 to 45 second clip tell the whole story? Many voters don’t hear or see the debate in real time (or even on DVR). Is the clip good enough to wind up taking the place of everything else that happened? When people watch it 20 or 30 years later does it bring back instant recall?
This is a key element. The epic chokes allow the candidate to reinforce a negative narrative they were trying to remove or minimize. Instead of shutting down the concern, it reinforces it. Before the choke, voters worried about a characteristic. Now they’re positive it exists.
Opponents can now run with it, and have video proof their criticisms were on point. It cuts the legs out from their defenders and leaves them stumbling as badly as the candidate.
Win Probability Subtracted
All of the above is important, but to qualify as the biggest choke ever, it needs to change the result. We’ll cover the Dan Quayle “You’re no Jack Kennedy” episode below, but that’s not a contender to top the list. It didn’t alter the course of the election. George H.W. Bush won with room to spare.
You can argue Quayle’s career was never the same after. His one attempt at running for the presidency ended very quickly. It’s hard to picture him as a consequential veep even without the gaffe. He was on a losing ticket in 1992. Others have rebounded from that to win a nomination, but not the presidency.
Other chokes really did matter. You can argue they changed the result of an entire election. That’s a whole other level.
In an attempt to keep this simple, I’m rating each of the chokes listed below on a 5 point scale in each of the 4 categories. The perfect choke can earn 20 points. We’ll go in chronological order, from Richard Nixon to Marco last night.
(1960) Nixon doesn’t look the part
Dick Nixon didn’t actually say anything particularly wrong in his first televised debate with JFK. Famously, radio listeners thought Nixon won. This was one of four debates in the fall of 1960 and Nixon more than held his own in the others, even with people watching.
This has entered the pantheon of debate mistakes because a pale, sweaty Nixon, with some 5 o’clock shadow allowed his youthful challenger to look more presidential. Entering the debate, Kennedy was seen as more charismatic, Nixon more serious.
With the Cold War in full swing, many worried about turning the responsibility for avoiding nuclear armageddon over to the relatively untested JFK. Though the candidates were only 4 years apart in age, Nixon was completing his 8th year as VP, and had faced down Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow and mobs of angry protestors in Venezuela the previous year.
The debate backstory is fun and worth a whole separate post, but events and visuals conspired to put Nixon in the worst possible light (literally. He just didn’t look good.)
Score: 9 points
This is always mentioned as a key turning point in the contest, but there were 20 other key moments. It was an incredibly close election. A switch of less than 10,000 votes between a couple states and Nixon wins. There were widespread allegations of voter fraud. Any little thing could have swung the balance.
The Nixon-Kennedy debate is more famous, but this one was more consequential. After 1960, there were no debates for 16 years. Lyndon Johnson saw no need to debate Barry Goldwater in 1964. Nixon decided to pass on debates in 1968 and 1972 (understandable.)
In 1976, insurgent outsider Jimmy Carter faced off against President Gerald Ford in a mid-October debate. Against the odds, Ford had somehow eliminated a 30 point gap in the polls. While Carter seemingly came out of nowhere to win the Democratic nomination, Ford slugged it out with Ronald Reagan for several long months.
As the first president to gain office through appointment, rather than election, Ford lacked the legitimacy of his predecessors. His executive pardon of Nixon was unpopular and poisoned Ford in the minds of many voters before his administration got rolling. He also dealt with a rough economy.
Despite all of that, and questionable speaking and retail political skills, Ford was roughly even with Carter heading into the debate. In 1975, he’d signed the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union and most European countries, something Reagan roundly criticized him for during the primary struggle.
In exchange for concessions on human rights, the accords appeared to accept the principle of Soviet control of Eastern Europe. Ford was sensitive about this and was asked about it during the debate.
When asked, he said there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. This was not the right answer. It was false. The Soviet Bloc was alive and well (if not beneficial for the residents of those countries.) Ford sounded clueless, not mendacious, playing into an existing narrative of an overwhelmed president.
In 1976, you couldn’t endlessly replay a clip, but it was very easy to remember the line. It put Ford on the defensive and halted his momentum. He wound up losing very narrowly. In Ohio, he missed by 0.27%, in Wisconsin by 1.68%. Victories in those two states would have given him the presidency.
Each state had a decent percentage of voters with ties to Eastern European countries. It’s quite possible Polish-American voters in Ohio and Wisconsin were the difference between victory and defeat.
Score: 17 points
You can’t be anywhere near 100% sure Ford would have otherwise won. His answer with a couple extra words “I’m not willing to accept Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” would have avoided harm. It’s not like he willingly set himself up like some of the others on the list.
(1980) Asking Amy
Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980, taking all but 49 electoral votes. At the time of their debate, a week before the election, polls had them deadlocked. Carter had previously passed on a debate that included Reagan and third party candidate John Anderson.
This was the one and only contest between the two major party contestants. Despite a strong enough performance with Anderson (the two spent plenty of time attacking the absent Carter), expectations for Reagan were low. Carter had done well in 1976, and people thought Reagan would struggle when forced to move beyond prepared remarks.
Reagan won the debate. He pushed back against Carter and closed very effectively. Polls moved and he won the election decisively. Among the key moments was a Carter addition to a discussion about nuclear weapons. He decided mentioning asking his teenage daughter what the most important issue facing the country was would help.
Apparently, Amy thought it was nuclear weapons. Nobody knows exactly what Carter was thinking. Perhaps he thought this would humanize him, maybe make voters think Reagan wasn’t going to keep Americans safe. Whatever the motivation, it made the sitting president look a bit flaky.
Score: 11 points
It was surprising, it was easy to replay. It added a little bit to a narrative, but probably didn’t change the course of the election. It’s not even the most famous clip from the debate (“are you better off than you were 4 years ago”).
This is the classic. It’s also the most similar to what happened to Rubio. A young senator is being criticized for being unprepared to assume the presidency. He has a prepared answer to deal with the query. An opponent pushes back. He doubles down and loses.
Lloyd Bentsen cutting down Dan Quayle is the most regularly replayed of these moments. The delivery was great, the timing perfect. It still holds up. It also was a Vice Presidential debate. If Bentsen and Quayle were competing for a nomination it would have been huge. Instead, it’s just a great clip.
Unlike Rubio, who was expected to handle the salvo with some skill, people didn’t expect much of Quayle. It gives Marco some time to dig out, but the shock value now is greater. There are also more ways to take advantage of the footage.
Score: 12 points
After the Democratic convention, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis led Vice President Bush by 17 points in the polls. Bush rallied and by the time of the debate in question had pulled ahead.
The main anti-Dukakis narrative was that he was too weak and too liberal. You can even argue the reason people on the left refer to themselves as progressive instead of liberal is because of how the word was hung around the Duke’s neck.
Among his hard-to-sell positions was strong opposition to the death penalty. Attempting to personalize his question, moderator Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis how he would feel about the death penalty if his wife Kitty was raped and murdered.
There are any number of ways you can answer this and still express opposition to having people put to death by the state. It’s probably wise to seem disturbed at the mention of this happening to your wife.
This is the worst delivery ever. The answer was bad, the delivery worse. Rubio lost a battle with Christie. Another politician bested him. A problem, but more excusable than being undone by a moderator question. It’s as though Dukakis only heard Shaw mention “death penalty.”
Score: 15 points
It probably didn’t cost Dukakis the election. He lost by 8 points. Otherwise, bad. Very bad.
We remember this one pretty well. By his third appearance in a GOP primary debate, Rick Perry was already reeling. When he entered the race, Perry immediately moved into a top tier position along Mitt Romney. His debate debut was mediocre, but nobody worried that much. It takes time to adjust.
His second debate was weak. Already carrying the burden of a Texas accent in the aftermath of the W presidency, Perry was regularly criticized for lack of intellectual heft. He needed to recover well in his third try and prove he understood the issues in depth.
Not the best time to get lost in a prepared bit about the three cabinet agencies he wanted to eliminate. Perry forgot the third one and stumbled around for over a minute. If you ever need the answer for bar trivia, the missing one was the Energy Department.
Watching it was painful, it was easily replayed, it played into a narrative, and his campaign never recovered.
Score: 14 points
He was already an underdog for the nomination, so it probably didn’t prevent Perry from winning the nomination, let alone the presidency, but a big error. It definitely impaired his ability to get a second look for 2016.
(2016) Stuck on Repeat
Marco Rubio could still win the nomination and presidency. He might have fallen short even if he did very well last night. Most of the other mistakes were in the fall campaign, in competitive elections. We can only guess at the impact, and future events will still influence the final score.
Otherwise, it’s the perfect debate storm. It was shocking. Rubio has a deserved reputation for doing well in this multi-candidate format. He knew the attack was coming and had time to prepare. He went back to the same flawed response four times. The first time, you could see what he was thinking, even if it was a mistake.
The second time, you were groaning. By the third time it was like watching a slow-motion 50-car accident. It’s an easy replay. You can show Christie carving him up, or just Rubio saying the same prepackaged lines over and over. News shows will play the clips. His opponents will build ads from the clips.
The narrative match is perhaps unequaled. Nixon looked shifty. Ford sounded idiotic. Carter appeared unable to lead. Dukakis was devoid of human emotion and unable to defend his wife. Quayle and Perry were deer in the headlights. All damaging, all reinforcing negative stereotypes of the candidates.
They required a slight amount of inference. Not much, but slight. Bernard Shaw didn’t preface his question by saying “Governor Dukakis, many have criticized your lack of emotion. People say you don’t care about your wife. Given these concerns, how would you respond regarding the death penalty if….”
Rubio couldn’t have done a better job of proving Christie’s point if he and his strategists planned it out that way. Truly an epic fail.
But though it’s unprovable now, I think the timing and impact on his campaign are worst of all. We still don’t know who really should have won the 1960 election. Most voters had their minds made up about Ford. Carter’s answer was awful, but Reagan asking voters if they were better off than they were four years before was more destructive.
Dukakis was already trailing in the race. Quayle couldn’t sink the ticket. Perry had already fallen well behind Romney in the polls. Rubio was tremendously close to consolidating support among party actors and voters who wanted anyone but Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. So agonizingly close.
When things like this happen in a general election, only swing voters are largely influenced. In a primary election, when most voters have other acceptable choices, the impact is potentially larger. Most Rubio voters are more than ok with at least one other candidate, often several.
And it happened on an attack that could have helped Marco if he handled it well. Of the others, only Dukakis and Quayle managed to whiff on a question or attack that could have actually benefitted the candidate if properly answered. The others would have merely avoided as much trouble as they wound up with.
Depending on how things go over the next several weeks, we may have our first 20 point choke.