News & Events

Print/PDF this page:

Print Friendly and PDF

Share this page:

Barack Obama Didn’t Win the Presidential Debates—And Neither Did John McCain—A Commentary by Aaron Zelinsky ’10

The following commentary was posted on History News Network on February 16, 2009.

Barack Obama Didn’t Win the Presidential Debates—And Neither Did John McCain
By Aaron Zelinsky ’10
Mr. Zelinsky is the founder of the Presidential Debate Blog and blogs for the Huffington Post. He is a member of the Yale Law School Class of 2010.

The 2008 Presidential Election has passed from current events into recent history. From a broader historical perspective, the 2008 presidential debates had little impact on the two major party nominees. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain committed a slip-up on par with Gerald Ford's supposed gaffe that Poland was "independent." Neither scored the knockout blow of Ronald Reagan's now legendary put down of Jimmy Carter: "There you go again." Neither Sarah Palin nor Joe Biden came close to Lloyd Bentsen's famous "You're no Jack Kennedy" body-slam on Dan Quayle.

Yet, the 2008 presidential debates were historically unique in their impact on persons who were not the major party nominees. Although the debates changed neither McCain nor Obama's fortunes, there were still major winners in the 2008 debates.

Here are the awards for the top five finishes in the 2008 presidential debate cycle:

First Place: Joe Biden. During the 2008 campaign, Biden delivered the strongest primary debate performance of any candidate. In a line worthy of The Gipper himself, Biden skewered a question about his verbosity, answering with a simple, resounding "yes." This moment carries the possibility of future immortality. Biden also won great acclaim for declaring that Giuliani's sentences consist of "a noun, a verb, and 9-11." At the same time, Biden came off as a knowledgeable elder statesman, paving the way for his Vice Presidential selection. If not for the primary debates, Biden would likely not be Barack Obama's Vice President.

Second Place: Mike Huckabee. The silver-tongued former Arkansas governor gathered steam during the early Republican primary debates, leading to the "Huckaboom" when he swept the Iowa primary. Huckabee's folksy demeanor and easy delivery sold well with voters who got to know him in a series of oratorical contests where he bested Mitt Romney and John McCain. The debates surely were not everything: Chuck Norris delivered an Oprah-like punch for the former Razorback governor. However, Huckabee's rhetorical debate skill established him as a formidable player in the Republican Party in 2008 and beyond.

Third Place: Rick Warren. Warren did the best job of any debate moderator. Although his Saddleback Civil Forum was not a formal debate, Warren managed to steal the show, getting both candidates together (albeit not on stage simultaneously) to answer questions for the first time in the election cycle. Moreover, the Saddleback event cemented Warren's status as America's pastor, allowing him to step beyond the conventional Republican affiliation of other evangelicals. No American religious figure since Billy Graham has so adeptly straddled the partisan divide. Obama's choice of Warren for the inaugural prayer reflects Reverend Rick's continuing role in American politics. Like Huckabee, there is a good chance we'll be seeing more of Rick Warren in the future.

Fourth Place: Sarah Palin. It's tough to remember how on-the-ropes Palin was after her disastrous interviews with Katie Couric. The October 2nd Vice Presidential Debate gave Palin the chance to redeem herself, and she did. In the words of Queen Latifah on Saturday Night Live, Palin entered the vice-presidential debate with "historically low expectations." Palin did not knock Biden out. In fact, most debate polls showed Biden pulling ahead. But Palin's debate performance effectively staunched the bleeding from the wounds caused by the Couric interviews. Her decent debate performance strengthened her claim as a national public figure both in the 2008 campaign and for the future.

Fifth Place: Joe the Plumber. Samuel J. Wurzelbacher awoke on the morning of Wednesday, October 15th a mere mortal. By nightfall, he was an international celebrity. Since then, Wurzelbacher has become an author, reporter, and potential candidate for Congress. Joe the Plumber was the "Lockbox" of the 2008 debate season, the line everyone will remember long after the specifics have faded into the distant memory.

The 2008 debate season may be over, but the impacts of the debates will be felt far into the future. Victory, they say, has a thousand fathers (and mothers). However, Biden, Huckabee, Palin, Warren, and Joe the Plumber all owe a special moment of thanks to the 2008 presidential debates.