As we have discussed in Politics 101, debates often do not make a large difference in the outcome of an election unless the front-runner makes a major error or the challenger does really well. However, I would argue that debates could also shift an election and the importance of certain issues when interesting quotes or better termed, catchphrases, occur. These catchphrases are typically a few words or even sentences from a debate that Americans emotionally react to; it is something they remember. Nowadays with social media stirring and the ability to retweet other people’s words, these catchphrases are easily shared and quickly “catch” on. The quotes can be meant to hurt the opponent, to raise concern about a certain issue or can possibly be a slip of the tongue, and sometimes offend listeners. After the three Presidential debates and with two weeks left until the elections, most polls show President Obama and Governor Romney in a dead heat, with their poll numbers incredibly close. As the dust clears over the next few crucial days, it will be interesting to see if any comments or quips from the debates prove to be memorable and influential to voters.
Past debates have had particular catchphrases and impressions that really resonated with people and, one could argue, changed the course of the elections. Although I may not agree with his politics, Ronald Reagan was an expert at leaving Americans thinking, and thinking he was right. His acting background prepared him for leaving a polished image on television. Ronald Reagan first made a splash in his debates in 1980 while he ran against Jimmy Carter and used his charm and his catchphrase, “There you go again.” He used this phrase over and over again to disarm Carter and make him seem ill prepared and uneducated about each topic. Since this patronizing tactic proved successful, other candidates in the future used the line to help them including Joe Lieberman, Sarah Palin, and Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan used another quote that I believe stuck in the minds of Americans and possibly decided his future fate of the White House when he posed the question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” in his 1980 election against Jimmy Carter. This tactic was striking to the American public because Jimmy Carter was in a lose-lose situation. If Carter claimed things were better, he would have been seen as a liar since the country clearly was not in a better situation. But if he admitted things had not gotten better, even if he had a plan to correct the issues, he would be agreeing with Reagan and confessing that he had not made progress during his time as President. Other candidates running against incumbents have made this same argument, most recently, Mitt Romney. Lastly, in 1984, Ronald Regan had another memorable quote aimed towards his opponent, Walter Mondale, which truly resonated with Americans. There was a lot of concern about Ronald Reagan’s age and he made the comment that turned that concern around, “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.” In addition to its humorous nature, this quotation reassured voters that Ronald Reagan’s age was not an issue of concern.
There have been two moments in particular in the current debates that have stuck out to me. One came in Monday night’s debate when Governor Romney was attempting to promote increasing the size of the military by pointing out that there were fewer ships in the Navy than in 1916. President Obama followed up with a statement that we also have “fewer horses and bayonets.” This prompted laughter from the audience and attempted to demonstrate that Romney was out of kilter with the demands of the job of Commander in Chief. This quotation was meant to rattle Governor Romney, show his ignorance, and further, to prove to the American people that Obama is knowledgeable about his role.
The other was during the 2nd Presidential debate on domestic and foreign policy when Governor Romney referred to “binders full of women.” When Governor Romney was asked how he would deal with the pay inequity of women if elected president, in what was meant to persuade women to vote for him, he answered in many ways that many women found offensive, especially with his explanation that he needed to have “binders full of women” made just so that he could find women who were capable of being on his cabinet. Although Governor Romney’s purpose was to show that he had plenty of women on his personal staff and he felt women should have equal opportunity, his response came across as highly offensive. He made it seem like women needed to be searched for, which implied though women might be qualified, they were not as assertive and successful as their male counterparts. While Romney hoped to show that in his own office he was supportive of women’s work schedules, his comment (that the reason they needed these schedules were because women who needed to could race home to pick up their kids from school and make dinner for their families) insinuated that he truly believes the women’s number one role is as a mother and a wife. It has since been stated that Romney does not really possess these “binders full of women.” But it has also been pointed out that Romney took credit for seeking qualified women when he actually did not. To make matters worse for Romney, he concentrated so much on what he has done personally for women’s equal opportunity that he didn’t even answer the original question about women’s current pay inequity. “Binders full of women” become the third-fastest rising Google search during the debate. This statement really resonated negatively with many Americans, including myself, and hurt his image with women. Regardless of what Governor Romney actually meant. This quote left the impression that qualified women were not readily available for high-level positions.