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Why tonight can clinch the election

David Gergen | 9/26/2016, 3:30 p.m.
Monday night's debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is shaping up as the climactic moment of this presidential campaign ...
Donald Trump says the swirling controversy over Hillary Clinton's email will cause her to drop out of the 2016 presidential race. (Photo: CNN)

— Monday night's debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is shaping up as the climactic moment of this presidential campaign -- one that will re-shape the landscape until Election Day.

If Mrs. Clinton can put away Mr. Trump, she could come close to locking up the presidency, but if he pulls off an upset, the dynamics of the race will likely shift in his direction. All the marbles are on the line here.

I have been engaged in these presidential debates for the past 40 years, first in debate prep for Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan and since then on television. Like most Americans, I welcome this tradition.

While the formats have never been perfect, these showdowns provide the most revealing insights into the candidates of any conceived. The man who deserves credit for reviving them in 1976, Newton Minow, rightly points out that 78 countries around the world now copy the US debate model in electing their leaders.

Drawing upon polling data, political scientists tend to argue that debates don't really matter in shaping election outcomes but ever since the initial Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, I have been among those who beg to differ.

A TV boost for JFK

Jack Kennedy was an underdog in that race, a callow, untested senator challenging a seasoned vice president who had served two terms under one of the most widely admired men in the world, Dwight Eisenhower (over 8 years Ike had an average approval rating of 65%).

Nixon, ever the diligent student (they called him "Iron Butt" in law school), prepared assiduously even as he pressed ahead on the campaign trail. Kennedy relaxed in the sun, studied what he needed, and built up his energy.

Kennedy was also sly: He had a professional make-up artist come to prepare him at home. In the studios, organizers asked if the candidates would like make-up. Kennedy brushed them off, saying he didn't want any. Nixon, his manhood challenged, then swore off too. Guess which one looked like a million dollars on stage -- and which one was wan and sweating.

While scholars dispute whether -- as legend has it -- radio listeners thought Nixon had won, there is no doubt that television watchers made up the vast majority of followers and believed that Kennedy had won. That evening prompted exciting crowds for Kennedy in the days that followed and he charged from behind to win by a whisker. Kennedy later told his press secretary Pierre Salinger that he won the presidency because of television.

Those 1960 presidential debates created a widely accepted view among politicos and relevant to the Clinton-Trump contest: that debates open up more opportunities for challengers than for front-runners and incumbents. President Johnson in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 refused debates because they were ahead in the polls.

Debate dangers

Sixteen years passed before an incumbent, President Ford, agreed to debates in 1976 and he did so because he was running way behind his challenger, Jimmy Carter. Ford then proceeded to demonstrate the flip side of the argument that debates can help challengers; he showed how dangerous they can be for a vulnerable incumbent. In the teeth of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, he insisted that peoples there were free -- a gaffe that turned the campaign decisively in Carter's direction. Ford never recovered.