Let’s take a look at who the public thought won recent presidential debates (as measured by CNN and USA Today/Gallup Polls):
That’s a pattern. Even though this list doesn’t include the two Clinton-Dole debates from 1996, the Democratic candidates’ record, going all the way back to 1992, is 14 wins, three losses, and one tie.
Against Poppy Bush and Ross Perot, Bill Clinton had two wins and one draw. George W. Bush did the best among Republicans, besting Gore twice (somehow) before getting swept by Kerry. Obama’s record (5-1) is strong, but he also suffered the worst defeat of any Democrat in his first debate against Romney. And Hillary Clinton just pulled off her own sweep against Donald Trump.
I wasn’t able to find polling data on the 1996 debates, but I think I’d remember if Dole clearly won either of them.
The results largely line up with the actual results, but not perfectly. Winning all three debates wasn’t enough to put John Kerry over the top, although he might have made it if the Democrats had been in charge of the voting in Ohio. Despite losing two out of three debates, Al Gore won the popular vote and was really only denied the presidency by a flawed ballot design in Palm Beach County that spoiled enough of his votes to change history. Without that butterfly ballot, the Supreme Court would never have been involved.
Still, the overall results are consistently bad for Republican candidates. They’re bad enough across a diverse enough set of individuals that the party might be forgiven for not wanting to do debates at all.
Of course, it’s a small sample and it’s distorted by the fact that George W. Bush and Donald Trump were never very conversant with policy or facts. There’s no doubt that the Democratic list includes in Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, two of the most gifted politicians in our history.
So, I don’t know how much you can draw from these numbers, but it’s a pretty strong winning record. A baseball team with that winning percentage this year would have won 127 games and finished 24 games ahead of this year’s best Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs are now one game away from reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945. If they make it, they’ll play the Cleveland Indians who haven’t won a World Series since 1948.
Maybe that can give the Republicans hope?