2008 United States presidential debates
2008 U.S. presidential election
The United States presidential election of 2008 was sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a bipartisan organization that sponsored four debates that occurred at various locations around the United States (U.S.) in September and October 2008. Three of the debates involved the presidential nominees, and one involved the vice-presidential nominees.
Republican Party nominee John McCain and Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama did not agree to additional debates; however, each was interviewed at the Civil Forum on the Presidency, held on August 16, 2008, and at the Service Nation Presidential Forum on September 11, 2008. Their respective running mates, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, did not participate in any additional debates.
- 1 Joint appearances
- 2 Debates
- 3 September 26: First presidential debate (University of Mississippi)
- 4 October 2: Vice presidential debate (Washington University in St. Louis)
- 5 October 7: Second presidential debate (Belmont University)
- 6 October 15: Third presidential debate (Hofstra University)
- 7 The third party debates
- 8 Proposed debates that did not materialize
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 External links
On Saturday, August 16, 2008, both McCain and Obama appeared at Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California. Similar to the Compassion Forum held in the Democratic debates, each candidate appeared separately, answering similar questions from Warren for one hour. Obama appeared first, followed by McCain.
The three presidential debates:
- Friday, September 26, 2008, 9 p.m. EDT at the University of Mississippi's Gertrude C. Ford Center in Oxford, Mississippi, moderated by Jim Lehrer, executive editor and anchor of The NewsHour on PBS. This debate was originally planned to focus on foreign policy and national security. Due to the 2008 financial crisis, a portion of the debate focused on economic issues.
- Tuesday, October 7, 2008, 9 p.m. EDT at Belmont University's Curb Event Center in Nashville, Tennessee, moderated by Tom Brokaw, special correspondent and former evening news anchor for NBC News. This debate had a town hall meeting format.
- Wednesday, October 15, 2008, 9 p.m. EDT at Hofstra University's Hofstra Arena in Hempstead, New York, moderated by Bob Schieffer, CBS News chief Washington correspondent and host of Face the Nation. This debate focused on domestic and economic policy.
One vice-presidential debate:
- Friday, October 3, 2008, 9 p.m. EDT at Washington University in St. Louis' Field House in the university's Athletic Complex in St. Louis, Missouri, moderated by Gwen Ifill, senior correspondent on The NewsHour and moderator and managing editor of Washington Week on PBS. The vice presidential debate covered both foreign and domestic topics.
The first and third of the 90-minute CPD presidential debates were divided into nine 9-minute issue segments, allowing the candidates to discuss selected topics, answer follow-ups from the moderator and directly address each other. The second CPD presidential debate featured a town hall format in which voters, either present at the debate or via the internet, posed questions on a topic of their choice. The format of the single vice presidential debate followed that of the first and third presidential debates, but included questions on all topics, with shorter response and discussion periods compared to the presidential debates.
The Republican nominees were Senator John McCain, and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. The Democratic nominees were Senators Barack Obama and Joseph Biden. The debates were sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
On August 2, 2008, Obama accepted the CPD proposal. In his letter, he stated that due to the short period between the conventions and the campaign, that it was "likely that the four Commission debates will be the sole series of debates" between the two. McCain criticized Obama for rejecting his town hall proposal. On August 18, 2008, McCain and Obama announced they had agreed to the general CPD framework for the three scheduled presidential debates and the one vice presidential debate.
A Zogby International poll released on August 15, 2008 indicated that more than 50% of Democratic and Republican voters would like to see Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr included in the presidential debates. Almost 70% of independent voters would also like to see him included. 46% of all voters polled and 59% of independents would also like to see independent candidate Ralph Nader included.
September 26: First presidential debate (University of Mississippi)
TV screenshot of the broadcast of 2008 Presidential debate at the University of Mississippi
|Date(s)||September 26, 2008|
|Location||University of Mississippi|
Senator John McCain
|Wikinews has related news: McCain and Obama face off in U.S. presidential candidate debate|
Although the debate was planned to focus on foreign policy and national security, Lehrer did devote the first half of the debate to the ongoing financial crisis. McCain repeatedly referred to his experience, drawing on stories from the past. Often, he joked of his age and at one point seemed to mock his opponent. Obama tied McCain to what he characterized as Bush Administration mistakes and repeatedly laid out detailed plans. Neither McCain nor Obama broke from talking points, and neither candidate made any major gaffe.
An estimated 52.4 million people watched the debate. A CBS poll conducted after the debate on independent voters found that 38% felt it was a draw, 40% felt Obama had won, and 22% thought that McCain had won. Voters and analysts agreed that Obama had won on the economy, but that McCain had done better on foreign policy issues, which were the focus of the debate. However, Obama had a more substantial lead on the economy than McCain did on foreign policy. Initial CNN polling reported Obama won the debate overall by a margin of 51–38. A CBS poll of uncommitted voters shows Obama winning 39–24, with 37% of voters undecided. Time's Mark Halperin graded Obama's performance an A- and McCain's performance a B-. One analyst, Nate Silver, gave greater emphasis to the fact that Obama spoke more effectively about the issues that mattered most to the voters, an interpretation that was backed up by Time Magazine commentator Joe Klein.
Several pollsters noted in the subsequent week that the public's perception of the debate might have been influenced by John McCain not looking at, or directly talking to his opponent during the debate, something many considered disrespectful.
On September 24, 2008, McCain announced his intention to suspend his campaign the next day and declared that he wanted to delay the first debate "until we have taken action" on the Paulson financial rescue plan. The reason given for the proposed postponement was so that McCain and Obama could return to Washington, D.C. in order to work on a legislative response to the unfolding financial crisis of 2007–2008. Obama rejected that idea, stating that "this is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from the person who, in approximately 40 days, will be responsible for dealing with this mess." A McCain adviser suggested replacing the Vice Presidential debate with the first Presidential debates and postponing the VP debates to an unspecified later date. Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, Robert Khayat, proposed that Obama hold a townhall meeting with the audience if McCain failed to appear. On the morning of September 26, McCain agreed to participate in the debate, claiming that there had been enough progress in the financial bailout plan. Three days later, however, the House of Representatives defeated the bailout proposal.
October 2: Vice presidential debate (Washington University in St. Louis)
|Moderated by Gwen Ifill, PBS|
|Date(s)||October 2, 2008|
in St. Louis
St. Louis, Missouri
vice presidential nominees
The vice presidential debate took place on October 2, 2008, between U.S. vice-presidential candidates Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, and Joe Biden, the senior Senator for Delaware, at Washington University in St. Louis, and was moderated by Public Broadcasting Service journalist Gwen Ifill. It was the first such debate to feature a female candidate since the 1984 vice presidential debate. The debate was watched by about 70 million viewers according to Nielsen Media Research, making it the most-watched vice-presidential debate in history. It was only the second presidential or vice-presidential debate to surpass 70 million viewers, the first being the 1980 presidential debate between Governor Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter, which drew nearly 81 million viewers.
Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, had been offered the opportunity to host the debate, but declined in order to pursue hosting one of the presidential debates. In November 2007 it was announced that Washington University in St. Louis would be the venue for the debate, making the university the only institution, as of 2008, to have hosted three or more presidential debates.
The first 90-minute presidential debate was divided into nine 3-minute issue segments, allowing the candidates to discuss selected topics, answer follow-ups from a moderator and directly address each other. The vice-presidential debate format followed that of the first presidential debate, but included questions on all topics and had shorter response and discussion periods.
The two candidates had never met before, which was part of the build-up to the debate. Palin said on one of her stump speeches before the debate, "I've never met [Biden] before. But I've been hearing about his Senate speeches since I was in, like, second grade." After moderator Gwen Ifill introduced the candidates, where they came out, Palin asked Biden, "Can I call you Joe?" He replied affirmatively. She said at one point, "I may not answer the questions the way the moderator and you want to hear." Critics said she was avoiding the debate itself, while her supporters could make the claim that she was answering the questions to "Joe six-pack" or "hockey moms." She used her inexperience to her advantage by saying, "It's so obvious that I'm a Washington outsider and not used to the ways you guys operate."
Palin spoke in greatest depth about energy policy while Biden spoke in greatest depth about foreign affairs. Biden refrained from criticizing Palin, concentrating his criticisms on McCain. While Palin offered brief criticism of Biden, she concentrated most of her criticism on Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Whereas Biden defended against Palin's criticisms of Obama, Palin tended not to offer detailed defenses against Biden's criticisms of Republican nominee John McCain and the George W. Bush administration, emphasizing instead generalizations about McCain and Palin's plans to reform the ways of Washington. Biden let it be known that he thought at one time McCain was a "maverick," but that is no longer the case.
During the debate Palin made the point of talking about a potential surge strategy in Afghanistan and mentioned the commanding general there as being "McClellan." Pundits criticized Biden's omission of the general's name; he referred to him several times only as the "commanding general in Afghanistan," until it was discovered the General's name is in fact David D. McKiernan.
One of the most memorable moments during the debate came at the end when Biden talked about the tragedy that affected his family when his wife and daughter died and his sons were injured. He explained by saying, "The notion that somehow, because I'm a man, I don't know what it's like to raise two kids alone, I don't know what it's like to have a child you're not sure is going to – is going to make it – I understand [...]." Palin did not react to this, instead, returning to her campaign's platform.
Much interest leading up to the debate stemmed from Governor Palin's poorly handled interviews conducted in the weeks leading up to the event; many of her responses were the brunt of severe criticism, and a poll in early October from the Pew Research Center showed that the number of people who believed Palin was qualified to serve as president had dropped to 37% from 52% in early September. Consequently, the vice-presidential debate was largely seen as an opportunity for further destruction or redemption on Palin's part. Several polls suggested that Biden had won the debate; although, many observers were surprised by Palin's speaking abilities and knowledge of John McCain's policies. CNN polls found Biden won 51 to 36. It is widely agreed that both candidates accurately followed the "do no harm" guideline of vice-presidential debates. James Taylor, professor of political science at the University of San Francisco commented, "[Palin] resuscitated herself, but I'm not sure she did quite enough to do anything for John McCain." He added "Biden demonstrated he knows John McCain better than Sarah Palin does. She couldn't offer rebuttals during the depth of discussions. She read the Cliff Notes on McCain, and Biden has known John McCain."
According to a poll of uncommitted voters conducted immediately after the debate by CBS News and Knowledge Networks, 46% thought Senator Biden won the debate, 21% thought Governor Palin had won, and 33% thought it was a tie. Fox News Channel held a poll regarding the performance of each candidate, with 51% of the votes in favor of Biden, and 39% in favor of Palin. The Opinion Research Corporation's poll on the debate revealed that 51% of viewers felt Biden had won, while 36% were in favor of Palin. In the same poll, 87% said Biden was capable of fulfilling the duties of the vice presidency, while 42% said Palin was capable. Palin was considered more likable however, scoring 54% to Biden's 36%. Mark Halperin of Time graded both candidates' performances a B.
The event overall was widely described as having little effect on the 2008 presidential race, although a CBS News poll found that the presidential race tightened following the vice-presidential debate, with the Obama-Biden lead falling from 9 points to 4 points.
Moderator Gwen Ifill
The debate's format offered moderator Gwen Ifill great freedom and power to decide the questions which can cover domestic or international issues. On the day before the debate, it gained wide media attention that Ifill had authored a new book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, which was to be released by publisher Doubleday on January 20, 2009, the day of the presidential inauguration. Ifill did not inform the debate commission about her book. Fox News' Washington managing editor Brit Hume claimed Ifill had a "financial stake" in an Obama victory because of the profit she stood to make from her book. John McCain said he was confident Ifill would do "a totally objective job," but stated, "Does this help that if she has written a book that's favorable to Senator Obama? Probably not." In response to the controversy, Ifill questioned why people assume that her book will be favorable toward Obama, saying "Do you think they made the same assumptions about Lou Cannon [who is white] when he wrote his book about [Ronald] Reagan?".
A national poll was held immediately following the vice-presidential debate, indicating that 95% of viewers felt Ifill was fair and unbiased.
Soon after the debate, a parody was created as the cold open for popular sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. The sketch starred Tina Fey in her signature impression of Sarah Palin, Jason Sudeikis as Joe Biden, and Queen Latifah appearing as a guest to play Gwen Ifill. As customary on SNL sketches, the transcript corresponded to the debate while making fun of candidates' shortcomings. Palin, as usual, was depicted as not really knowing much other than having been a maverick. "You know, we're gonna take every aspect of the crisis and look at it and then we're gonna ask ourselves, 'What would a maverick do in this situation?' And then, you know, we'll do that!". Senator Biden was comedically portrayed in his soft spot for John McCain. "Because, look, I LOVE John McCain. He is one of my dearest friends. But, at the same time, he's also dangerously unbalanced. I mean, let's be frank, John McCain – and again, this is a man I would take a bullet for – is bad at his job and is mentally unstable."
The debate sketch sparked a great deal of interest, including a rare response by Joe Biden on ABC's Good Morning America. Biden told host Diane Sawyer "Oh God. I wish I had that much hair." Still unable to stop laughing, Biden said, "These guys are incredible, I don't know what to say."
October 7: Second presidential debate (Belmont University)
|Date(s)||October 7, 2008|
|Participants||Barack Obama, John McCain|
Moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC News opened the debate by stating that since the first debate, a lot had changed in the world and for the worse. While Brokaw did not ask the initial questions, he did ask follow-up ones. When the candidates were asked who they would consider as the next Secretary of the Treasury, John McCain said that he might concur with Obama's suggestion of Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett and then went on also to suggest former eBay president Meg Whitman. Barack Obama reiterated the mention of Buffett and said there are also many other qualified Americans. Both candidates said that it is important to choose as Treasury Secretary someone who earns the trust of the American people. The first 5 questions all were related to the economy.
The first Internet question came from a 78-year-old, as Brokaw pointed out, "child of the Depression" about sacrifices that Americans might have to make in the future. McCain responded that spending– besides defense, veterans' affairs, and certain other programs that he specified during the first debate– would have to be frozen.
McCain was critical of Obama's support for a $3 million earmark which would have bought a new planetarium projector for Chicago's Adler Planetarium, the oldest planetarium in the Western Hemisphere. The current Zeiss Mark VI projector is 40 years old and no longer supported by its manufacturer, Carl Zeiss AG. McCain referred to it as an overhead projector. The earmark was not approved.
CNN's poll conducted after the debate found that 54% of those surveyed thought that Obama had won and 30% felt McCain had won. In CBS's poll of uncommitted voters, 40% felt Obama had won, 26% thought McCain had won, and 34% said it was a tie. Time's Mark Halperin graded Obama's performance a B+ and McCain's performance a B.
Several media outlets, especially those on the Internet, reported controversy over McCain referring to Obama as "that one" while discussing energy policy. Many critics of McCain, including the Obama campaign, compared it to the first debate, when McCain did not look at Obama. This incident was recreated on Saturday Night Live, with the actor portraying McCain referring to his opponent as "this character here," "junior," and "pee-pants." Many comedy show performers - Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart and the Saturday Night Live crew - also lampooned McCain's habit of "wandering aimlessly about the stage" during the debate while Obama was speaking.
October 15: Third presidential debate (Hofstra University)
|Date(s)||October 15, 2008|
Long Island, New York
|Participants||Barack Obama, John McCain|
The third presidential debate occurred on Wednesday, October 15 at 9:00 PM EST in the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on the campus of Hofstra University. The focus was on domestic policy and the economy.
Joe the Plumber
During the debate repeated references were made to Joe Wurzelbacher, aka "Joe the Plumber". Wurzelbacher had spoken with Obama while he was campaigning in Holland, Ohio. Wurzelbacher claimed that Obama's tax policy would make it difficult for him to expand his business and hire more employees if he bought the business at which he had been employed as a plumber. Obama gave a five-minute response where he said "under his proposal taxes on any revenue from $250,000 on down would stay the same, but that amounts above that level would be subject to a 39 percent tax, instead of the current 36 percent rate", and that his plan includes a 50 percent small-business tax credit for health care and a proposal to eliminate the capital-gains tax for small businesses that increase in value, and "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody", which Wurzelbacher later dismissed as "tap dancing...he was almost as good as Sammy Davis Jr.".
In the debate, McCain repeatedly brought up "Joe the Plumber" and Obama and McCain then made statements aimed directly at Wurzelbacher. These events led to subsequent media attention directed at Wurzelbacher. He reportedly had been registered to vote in 1992 under the name "Samuel Joseph Worzelbacher", and voted in his first primary on March 4 of this year, registering as a Republican. After the debate, Wurzelbacher did not declare his vote for either candidate, although he expressed concern that Obama's plans were "one step closer to socialism." Obama's running mate Joe Biden argued that the vast majority of small businesses are smaller than Wurzelbacher's.
In an interview the day after the debate, Wurzelbacher said Obama's tax plan wouldn't affect him right now, because he doesn't make $250,000. He also indicated to reporters that he was a conservative, a fan of the military and McCain. He said meeting McCain would be an honor but said he hadn't been contacted by the Republican campaign.
CNN's poll conducted after the debate found that 58% of those surveyed thought that Obama had won and 31% felt McCain had won. In CBS's poll of uncommitted voters, 53% felt Obama had won and 22% thought McCain had won, Obama's largest margin of victory of the three debates. A Politico poll of undecided voters, conducted over a 15-minute period following the completion of the presidential debate, showed that 49% felt Obama won, while 46% believed McCain won the debate. Among respondents not identified with either major political party, McCain was judged the night’s winner, 51-42 percent. Obama’s most important lead may have come among Hispanic voters, who said he bested McCain by a 50-36 percent margin.
Bruce Merrill, professor of media and mass communications at Arizona State University, claimed, "I really think that [McCain's] negativism, the attack mode was one that does not play well with women and independents." Many observers felt that Obama had to simply avoid stumbles or mistakes in order to succeed in the debate. This was reflected in another professor's sentiments: "I didn't think Obama was as comfortable this time as he was in the other two debates, but I didn't really hear any gaffe, any major mistake," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Sabato added, "he might even be judged the winner." Time's Mark Halperin graded McCain's performance an A- and Obama's performance a B.
The third party debates
Several third-party debates were held in 2008.
|Third-party debates, 2008|
|P Participant. N Non-invitee. A Absent invitee.||Democratic||Republican||Libertarian||Green||Constitution||Independent|
|D1||October 15, 2008||N||N||A||P||P||P|
|D2||October 23, 2008||A||A||A||A||P||P|
October 15: C-SPAN (Columbia University)
The first of two televised third-party debates was held October 15 at Columbia University. The debate was broadcast by C-SPAN. It included Independent candidate Ralph Nader, Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin, and Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney. It was hosted by Amy Goodman, moderator of the widely syndicated TV/radio program Democracy Now.
October 23: Free & Equal debate (Washington, D.C.)
The second of the televised third-party debates was sponsored by the Free & Equal Elections Foundation and took place in Washington, D.C. on October 23. The third party candidates who could theoretically win the 270 votes needed to win the election were invited, and Independent candidate Ralph Nader and Constitution party candidate Chuck Baldwin attended. Journalist Chris Hedges moderated. It was broadcast on cable by C-SPAN and on the Internet by Break-the-Matrix (BtM), one of the event sponsors (Other sponsors included Open Debates, the Daily Paul, and Steal Back Your Vote).
Alternative Presidential Candidates' Debate
An Alternative Presidential Candidates' Debate was hosted by The Coalition for October Debate Alternatives (CODA), the Nashville Peace Coalition, and Vanderbilt Students of Nonviolence at Vanderbilt University, moderated by Bruce Barry. The participants were Bradford Lyttle of the U.S. Pacifist Party, Charles Jay of the Boston Tea Party, Gloria LaRiva of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Frank McEnulty of the New American Independent Party, Vice-Presidential candidate Darrell Castle of the Constitution Party and Brian Moore of the Socialist Party.
October 28: Third Party Forum (Cypress College)
On October 28, a Third Party Forum was held at Cypress College hosted by Associated Students. Bradford Lyttle and Frank McEnulty participated as well as representatives for the Constitution Party, Green Party, and Nader campaign. A sixth, Bruce Bongardt, also participated describing himself as a "virtual candidate" who was not on the ballot but wanted to share his ideas.
Proposed debates that did not materialize
Proposals by third parties
In November 2007, the CPD rejected New Orleans as a debate site on grounds that the city had not recovered sufficiently from Hurricane Katrina to handle such an event. The decision was criticized, and various candidates and newspapers urged the commission to hold a debate in New Orleans.
On April 29, 2008, Google and YouTube announced that they would sponsor a U.S. Presidential Forum, to be held on September 18 at the New Orleans Morial Convention Center. It was intended to be hosted by The New Orleans Consortium, which consists of Women of the Storm and the Greater New Orleans Foundation as well as Dillard University, Loyola University New Orleans, Tulane University, and Xavier University. Unlike debates organized by the CPD, the 15% polling threshold was substituted with a threshold for participation at "no less than 10 percent of the voting age population intending to vote, as measured by at least three nationally-recognized public opinion surveys." This non-CPD sanctioned event was cancelled because no candidates or parties agreed to appear.
At the end of August, 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain agreed to participate in a written "debate" on scientific issues, organized by a coalition of scientific, professional and media organizations called ScienceDebate.org. On August 30, Obama's responses were published in Nature magazine, and McCain's were published on September 15, 2008.
Proposals by the candidates
In June 2008, John McCain proposed 10 town-hall style debates, considered his best format. Obama proposed five total debates between June and Election Day: three traditional debates plus a joint town hall on the economy in July and an "in-depth debate" on foreign policy in August.
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- Democratic Party presidential debates and forums, 2008
- Republican Party presidential debates and forums, 2008
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- First debate
- University of Mississippi - Presidential Debate official site
- Presidential Debate full coverage from Memphis Commercial Appeal
- transcript and video from CNN
- transcript from The Wall Street Journal
- Vice presidential debate
- Washington University in St. Louis - Vice Presidential Debate 2008 official site
- video from BBC News
- transcript and video from CNN
- Second debate
- Belmont University - Debate 2008 official site
- Belmont Debate '08 full coverage from The Tennessean
- transcript and video from CNN.
- Third debate
- Hofstra University - 2008 Presidential Debate official site
- Third-party Presidential debates
- Third Party Presidential Debate (Full Video) October 23 Debate moderated by Chris Hedges