Tonight, Joe Biden and Donald Trump will meet at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, for the first of three presidential debates, like an episode of Gunsmoke staged entirely in a nursing home. It’s their first head-to-head matchup and hence carries outsized expectations for its importance. But then, presidential debates always do, as one of the marquee moments in the spectacle of the presidential election. These contests don’t sway great blocks of voters—rather, they provide something to which Americans and the media specifically can point, in order to summarize months of complicated events.
Both campaigns are treating tonight’s debate as important; when the next debate rolls around, early voting will already be well underway in swing states. But it’s something of an open question how much debates actually influence elections: A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 70 percent of Americans say the debates won’t matter much to their decision, and it’s only a small slice of Americans who are undecided, at this point.
However, this has been a very weird year, the race is a tight one, and Trump has been relentless in his attacks on Biden’s mental competence. Everyone will be participating and watching with a keen sense of the possibility for a moment that goes into the history books—because that’s how the story of presidential elections so often gets told.
The most famous presidential debate, to the point of cliche, is the first to be televised, the 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Nixon looked like death warmed over, a sweaty, sketchy mess, while Kennedy looked crisp and youthful but also prepared and poised, his performance helping make up for the fact that Nixon had more actual governing experience. This established a political legend, in which the mighty power of the small screen ensured Kennedy’s triumph. In fact, Kennedy was already polling ahead, the Financial Times pointed out. But the contest established a popular narrative about the importance of the debates, framing their reception in the decades that followed.
In the 1980 presidential debates, Jimmy Carter first hammered Reagan on his pushing to make Social Security opt-in, blitzed him with facts and figures, and then later eloquently laid out the potential impact of a national health insurance program—the more things change!—and noted that Reagan had in fact begun his political career campaigning against Medicare. “Governor Reagan, again, typically, is against such a proposal” as national health insurance. Carter was right about Reagan’s approach to government, and it’s impossible to watch the clip now without thinking of just how far the social safety net has been shredded in the decades since. But that didn’t matter, thanks to Reagan’s response, which demonstrates a deep understanding of both the presidential debate format and the way the mass media works: a broad smile and a chuckling, “There you go again!” He finished Carter off in his closing, asking Americans if they were better off than they had been four years ago.
There’s still more resonance in Reagan’s 1984 debates with Walter Mondale, considering the fact that Trump is trying to turn this whole thing into a referendum on the mental attributes of “Sleepy Joe”—so much so he may have lowered the bar too far, making it easy for Biden to impress viewers. In his first matchup with the Democratic nominee, Reagan frequently lost his place and blanked out during his answers, inspiring concern about whether he was still fit for the job.
Going into the final debate, as this NBC video with reporter Steve Kornacki explains, he needed to prove that he was still on his toes. When his age came up in a question at the next debate, he responded: “I want you to know that also, 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.” It was a huge laugh line that dominated coverage and effectively dispelled the issue, and Mondale himself later said that’s when he knew he’d lost the election. But both Mondale and Carter had problems already going into their debates with Reagan—a good one-liner doesn’t get secure you a landslide. It’s not that these debates tipped the scales, so much as they crystallized the dynamics of the contest.
For as long as they’ve been televised, presidential debates have always been about the quick impression and the soundbite, and that’s only accelerated in recent years with the rise of digital news, GIFs, and live Twitter reactions. Increasingly, what comes out are memes and ironic plays on them—see Mitt Romney and his relentlessly mocked “binders full of women,” which later inspired a Facebook group for women networking in media. During his debates with Hillary Clinton, Trump wandered around the stage behind her and talked about “Bad Hombres,” which made for compelling viewing but wasn’t particularly impressive in terms of presidential performance. A Gallup poll of viewers declared Clinton the winner of all three 2016 debates. We all know who ended up in the White House, though.
The debates didn’t win Reagan or any other president the election, so much as they distilled his entire public persona into two quick moments of snappy dialog that utterly derailed the conversation from important questions. The idea that any single presidential debate moment is make-or-break is a fantasy about the history-shaping power of rhetoric and set-pieces. In reality, any standout moment is mostly colorful detail that illustrates the broader narrative and serves to sum up a months-long process. Most likely, the debate between Trump and Biden will be no different—it won’t change the election’s outcome, so much as it will provide the soundbites for talking heads to hash out until Election Day and, ultimately, storytelling devices for historians trying to make sense of everything that’s happened this year.