The Most Memorable (and Embarrassing) Presidential Debate Gaffes

Presidential debates (and by extension, vice-presidential debates) have been a common litmus test for presidential candidates running for the oval office. But as many of us know, public speaking doesn’t always go smoothly. Embarrassing debate gaffes are peppered throughout campaign history, so we’re bringing you a list of all the biggest debate fails out there.
It’s been argued that major presidential candidate fails can sink an entire campaign, particularly since they traditionally happen not long before the polls open. When a major candidate says something that angers the American voter, or when a candidate fails to come up with an appropriate answer to an important question, it can sway public opinion just enough to change the course of the election. This goes double for candidates running in the primaries. Primary debates are when candidates have to be their most aggressive, and have to show they are the perfect choice to run in the general election.
It’s during these times that candidates will make their most radical attempts to gain attention and favor. It’s also when candidates fail the hardest – and on national television, no less. Here’s our list of debate gaffes, debate fails, and other strange behavior on the campaign trail. There’s no shortage of candidates killing their campaign with a few poorly-placed words, and we’ve got plenty of videos showing off presidential wannabes failing, and failing hard.

In one of the most memorable moments in debate history, Republican vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle, in dealing with questions about his experience and fitness for the office, noted that John F. Kennedy wasn’t all that experienced himself. This lead Democrat Lloyd Bentsen to say the immortal words: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Occasionally, a quip can go south in a hurry. In a debate with Hillary Clinton over the Democratic nomination, Clinton was asked if her “personal appeal” was good enough to best the young Senator from Illinois. Obama interjected with “you’re likable enough, Hillary,” to which many found to be unnecessary and even cruel. He was handed a major defeat in New Hampshire immediately after, forcing his campaign to focus in order to win the presidency in 2008.

Many other debate gaffes could be argued away as a temporary setback. However, this moment with Rick Perry, where he fails to remember one of the three departments that he would erase from the government (the Department of Energy, not exactly a tiny division), never went away and his decline in the polls accelerated to the point of quitting after the South Carolina primary.

When your campaign consists of restructuring the government, you should probably be able to remember at least three items.

Away from the debates, then Senator Howard Dean was having a rough go at the Iowa caucuses. The frontrunner going into Iowa, late surges by John Edwards and John Kerry resulted in him taking third place. In a concession speech, he was attempting to cheer up the crowd. His microphone actually filtered out the loud crowd noise, making it sound as if he weren’t responding to them, but having a breakdown when he ultimately did his  “yeah!” scream. (He was also coming off the flu and his voice was hoarse.)

Regardless, his campaign never recovered, and the speech gaffe still comes around as a fun meme soundbyte every now and again.

In the first televised debate ever in the country, candidate Richard Nixon was a clear loser to John F. Kennedy. Refusing to prepare for the debate, and having just recently left a hospital stay, Nixon looked so bad that his mother called him to ask if he were sick. By contrast, Kennedy looked youthful, calm and collected, and many believed it helped in winning him the Oval Office.

 

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