RICHMOND, Va. — The vice presidential debate between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence is coming to Longwood University in Farmville on Tuesday evening. It’s the first national debate in Virginia since Oct. 15, 1992 when President George H.W. Bush debated Bill Clinton and Ross Perot at the University of Richmond’s Robins Center.
“Economic uncertainty tied to a scandal involving members of Congress and their checking accounts created an opening for an anti-Washington candidacy,” said Michael Cornfield, George Washington University professor of political management, in an email interview as he reflected on the debate from 24 years ago.
No third-party candidate has since been allowed to participate in a presidential debate. Candidates must poll at 15 percent or higher nationally in at least five major surveys to be eligible to debate.
“Perot was an executive of a company and immersed in the commerce of a business,” said Daniel Palazzolo, chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Richmond, who was at the university during the 1992 debate. “(Perot) brought real attention to the budget differences. He had this breathtaking plan for the economy.”
According to Real Clear Politics, leading third party candidate and Libertarian Gary Johnson is currently polling nationally at 7.2 percent.
The 1992 debate was also the first presidential debate conducted in a town hall-style forum, with a small audience of 209 undecided voters, who asked their own questions to the candidates.
“The enduring significance of the town-hall style debate is that citizens ever since have been included in the debate ritual,” Cornfield said. “That adds legitimacy to the process and the final result.”
According to Palazzolo, President Bush was distracted in 1992 by questions posed by the audience. In response to a question by a woman in the audience asking how the national debt had personally affected each of the candidates’ lives, Bush seemed confused.
“I’m not sure I get — help me with the question and I’ll try to answer it,” Bush said.
Clinton on the other hand had experience with town hall-style debates and responded with an anecdote from his time as the governor of Arkansas, walking around the stage and engaging with the woman who had asked the question.
“I have seen what’s happened in these last four years. When, in my state, when people lose their jobs there’s a good chance I’ll know them by their names,” Clinton said. “When a factory closes, I know the people who ran it. When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them.”
According to Palazzolo, it was this ability to empathize and communicate effectively with the crowd that heavily contributed to Clinton’s success that night. In addition, Bush was caught on camera glancing at his watch.
“From a purely political science perspective, maybe a more productive discussion could’ve come out of more carefully selected questions,” Palazzolo said. “The format and the setting really favored Clinton.”
Gallup surveyed viewers immediately after the debate, and found that overall the audience felt that Clinton won the debate at the University of Richmond.
“Debates provide voters and historians with convenient and dramatic moments by which to justify what is a complex and heavily inertial process of decision making,” Cornfield said. “No debate, not even the 1960 and 1980 debates hallowed by myth, has ever been decisive.”
But in the end, President Bush lost to Bill Clinton and the town hall moment at the University of Richmond became part of presidential debate history that is now replayed over and over again on cable news.
On the other hand, the only other presidential debate in Virginia between President Gerald Ford and his challenger Jimmy Carter in 1976 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg is rarely mentioned in presidential history.
By Jesse Adcock (Special to WTVR.com)
EDITOR’S NOTE: WTVR.com has partnered with the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project at VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. A student from the project reported this story.