United States presidential election debates, 2008

United States presidential election debates, 2008

The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) sponsored four debates for the 2008 U.S. presidential general election, which took place at various locations around the United States 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 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.


Joint appearances

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.[1][2]

On September 11, 2008, McCain and Obama were separately interviewed at the Service Nation presidential forum at Columbia University.[3]


The three presidential debates:

One vice-presidential debate:


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.[10][11]


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.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14]

September 26: First presidential debate (University of Mississippi)

Moderated by Jim Lehrer, PBS
Senator Barack Obama
Senator John McCain
Location University of Mississippi
Oxford, Mississippi
Date September 26, 2008

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.[15] 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.[16]


An estimated 52.4 million people watched the debate.[17] 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.[18] Initial CNN polling reported Obama won the debate overall by a margin of 51–38.[19] A CBS poll of uncommitted voters shows Obama winning 39–24, with 37% of voters undecided.[20] Mark Halperin of Time.com graded Obama's performance as A- and McCain's as B-.[21] One analyst, Nate Silver, gave greater emphasis to the fact that Obama spoke more effectively about the issues that mattered most to the voters,[22] an interpretation that was backed up by Time Magazine commentator Joe Klein.[23]

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.[24]

Proposed postponement

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.[25] 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 economic turmoil. 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."[26] A McCain adviser suggested replacing the Vice Presidential debate with the first Presidential debates and postponing the VP debates to an unspecified later date.[27] Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, Robert Khayat, proposed that Obama hold a townhall meeting with the audience if McCain failed to appear.[28] 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.[29] Three days later, however, the House of Representatives defeated the bailout proposal.[30]

October 2: Vice presidential debate (Washington University in St. Louis)

On October 2, 2008, U.S. vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin held a debate at Washington University in St. Louis. It was moderated by PBS's Gwen Ifill.[31][32]

October 7: Second presidential debate (Belmont University – Nashville townhall)

Moderated by Tom Brokaw, NBC News
Participants Barack Obama, John McCain
Democratic and Republican
Presidential Nominees
Location Belmont University
Nashville, Tennessee
Date October 7, 2008

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 vital 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.[33]


CNN's poll conducted after the debate found that 54% of those surveyed thought that Obama had won and 30% felt McCain had won.[34] In CBS's poll of uncommitted voters, 40% felt Obama had won, 26% thought McCain had won, and 34% said it was a tie.[35]

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.[36][37] 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."[38] 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.[39]

October 15: Third presidential debate (Hofstra University – Hempstead, New York)

Moderated by Bob Schieffer, CBS News
Participants Barack Obama, John McCain
Democratic and Republican
Presidential Nominees
Location Hofstra University
Long Island, New York
Date October 15, 2008

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.[40] The focus was on domestic policy and the economy.[41]

Joe the Plumber

During the debate repeated references were made to Joe Wurzelbacher, aka "Joe the Plumber".[42] Wurzelbacher had spoken with Obama[43] 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",[44] 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,[45] 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.[46][47][48] 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.[49] 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."[49] Obama's running mate Joe Biden argued that the vast majority of small businesses are smaller than Wurzelbacher's.[50]

In an interview the day after the debate,[51] 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.[52]


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.[53] 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.[54]

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."[55] Time's Mark Halperin graded McCain's performance an A- and Obama's performance a B.[56]

The third party debates

The first of two third-party debates was held October 15 at Columbia University.[57] 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.

The second debate was sponsored by Free and Equal.org and took place in Washington, D.C. on October 23.[58] 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).

Libertarian candidate Bob Barr was invited to both events, but declined to participate in either, citing scheduling conflicts in both cases.[57][58]

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.[59]

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.[60]

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.[61] The decision was criticized, and various candidates and newspapers urged the commission to hold a debate in New Orleans.[62]

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.[63] 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."[64] This non-CPD sanctioned event was cancelled because no candidates or parties agreed to appear.[65]

Proposals by the candidates

In June 2008, John McCain proposed 10 town-hall style debates, considered his best format.[66] 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.[67]

See also


  1. ^ Saddleback Civil Forum
  2. ^ CQ Politics | McCain and Obama Will Meet in Church
  3. ^ Candidates Promise National-Service Initiatives
  4. ^ 2008 Presidential Debate | The University of Mississippi - Official Home Page
  5. ^ a b McCain, Obama agree on fall debates
  6. ^ Belmont University - Debate 2008
  7. ^ 2008 Presidential Debate - Hofstra University
  8. ^ Washington University in St. Louis :: Vice Presidential Debate 2008
  9. ^ Presidential Debate Moderators Set: PBS Gets Two, ABC Shut Out, Lehrer, Brokaw, Schieffer, Ifill Get The Call The Huffington Post, August 5, 2008
  10. ^ "Commission on Presidential Debates Hails 2008 Formats as "Historic Breakthrough"". CPD. 2008-09-21. http://www.debates.org/pages/news_092108.html. 
  11. ^ Davis, Susan (2008-08-21). "Campaigns Agree to Debate Formats". Wall Street Journal blogs. http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2008/08/21/campaigns-agree-to-debate-formats/. Retrieved 2008-10-16. 
  12. ^ "Obama backs away from McCain's debate challenge". Associated Press. 2008-08-04. http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5hjmksVl2byqc_-Lkbri0QQWkgUwgD92AFT400. 
  13. ^ "McCain and Obama Reach Agreement on Debates". ABC News. 2008-09-09. http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2008/08/mccain-and-obam.html. Retrieved 2008-10-18. 
  14. ^ Zogby Poll: Majority Want Libertarian Bob Barr Included in Presidential Debates, www.Zogby.com
  15. ^ Nagourney, Adam; Bumiller, Elisabeth (September 26, 2008). "McCain Leaps Into a Thicket". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/26/us/politics/26campaign.html?_r=1&pagewanted=2&hp&oref=slogin. Retrieved May 26, 2010. 
  16. ^ Obama, McCain claim victory after debate - Yahoo! News
  17. ^ McCain-Obama debate draws 52.4 million viewers
  18. ^ "CBS Poll: Obama Boosted Most By Debate". CBS News. September 27, 2008. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/09/27/opinion/polls/main4482119.shtml?source=search_story. 
  19. ^ TPM Election Central | Talking Points Memo | Initial Polls Show Obama Winning The Debate
  20. ^ "Cbs News/Knowledge Networks Poll". CBS News. http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/2008Debate1.pdf. 
  21. ^ Mark Halperin, Grading the First Presidential Debate, 2008-09-26. Retrieved on 2008-09-29
  22. ^ Nate Silver, "Why Voters Thought Obama Won,"FiveThirtyEight.com, September 27, 2008.
  23. ^ Joe Klein, "Next Day Thoughts," September 27, 2008.
  24. ^ Assessing the debate
  25. ^ Bumiller, Elisabeth and Jeff Zeleny "First Debate Up in Air as McCain Puts Off Politicking" "The New York Times"2008-09-24. Retrieved on 2008-09-24
  26. ^ Obama, Barack "In Their Own Words: The Debate Dispute" "The New York Times" 2008-09-24. Retrieved on 2008-09-24.
  27. ^ Bash, Dana (September 24, 2008). "McCain camp to propose postponing VP debate". CNN. http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2008/09/24/mccain-camp-to-propose-postponing-vp-debate/. 
  28. ^ "McCain Says He Will Attend Debate; Obama on His Way". http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=email_en&sid=asaj7KvW8tkY. 
  29. ^ "McCain, Obama debate Iraq strategy - CNN.com". CNN. September 26, 2008. http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/09/26/debate.mississippi/index.html. Retrieved May 26, 2010. 
  30. ^ "Final vote results for roll call 674". 2008-09-29. http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2008/roll674.xml. Retrieved 2008-09-29. 
  31. ^ Washington University in St. Louis :: Vice Presidential Debate 2008
  32. ^ Mooney, Alexander. "Palin blames financial crisis on Wall Street". CNN.
  33. ^ "Obama's Planetarium Projector Earmark Explained". Huffington Post. 2008-10-08. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/08/obamas-planetarium-projec_n_133065.html. 
  34. ^ Steinhauser, Paul. Obama picks up second debate win, poll says. CNN. October 8, 2008. Retrieved October 8, 2008.
  35. ^ CBS Poll: Uncommitted Voters Favor Obama. CBS. October 8, 2008. Retrieved October 8, 2008.
  36. ^ "McCain's 'That One' Line Resonates". Associated Press. 2008-10-08. http://news.aol.com/elections/debates/article/mccains-that-one-line-resonates/199316?icid=200100397x1211241433x1200675560. Retrieved 2008-10-18. 
  37. ^ "McCain’s 'that one' takes off online". Politico. 2008-10-08. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1008/14400.html. Retrieved 2008-10-18. 
  38. ^ "Which comedian poked fun at debate? That one". MSNBC. 2008-10-09. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27098586. Retrieved 2008-10-18. 
  39. ^ "The McCain Wander". The Huffington Post. 2008-10-10. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/10/the-mccain-wander_n_133775.html. Retrieved 2008-10-18. 
  40. ^ Hofstra University Debate Activities Schedule. Hofstra University. Retrieved October 14, 2008.
  41. ^ Hofstra University Debate Media Information Hofstra University. Retrieved October 14, 2008.
  42. ^ "Joe the plumber is real hero of the debate", The Times, Anne Barrowclough, 16 October 2008.
  43. ^ Plumberdämmerung has the video
  44. ^ Seewer, John (16 October 2008). "'Joe the Plumber' says he has no plumbing license". Associated Press. http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5gJsPHiQlgYvAsrHz9mvHJlezQJLwD93RONUO0. Retrieved 2008-10-17. 
  45. ^ "Fact check: Obama said he would 'spread his wealth around'?". CNN. 2008-10-16. http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2008/10/18/fact-check-obama-said-he-would-spread-his-wealth-around/. Retrieved 2008-10-18. 
  46. ^ Ohio.com - AP
  47. ^ Shales, Tom (October 16, 2008). "Candidates Make A Name for This Guy Joe". The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/16/AR2008101600099.html?hpid=topnews. Retrieved May 26, 2010. 
  48. ^ "This page is available to GlobePlus subscribers". The Globe and Mail (Toronto). http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20081015.wdebate1015/BNStory/International. 
  49. ^ a b Bridget Tharp and Mark Zaborney (2008-10-16). "'Joe the Plumber' is focus of presidential debate's first few minutes". Toledo Blade. http://www.toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081016/NEWS09/810160418. Retrieved 2008-10-16. 
  50. ^ "Biden questions 'notion of this guy Joe the plumber'". CNN. http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2008/10/16/biden-questions-notion-of-this-guy-joe-the-plumber/. Retrieved May 26, 2010. 
  51. ^ http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081016/ap_on_el_pr/joe_the_plumber
  52. ^ "'Joe the Plumber' says he has no plumbing license". Associated Press. 2008-10-16. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081016/ap_on_el_pr/joe_the_plumber. Retrieved 2008-10-18. [dead link]
  53. ^ "Instant Debate Reaction". Political Wire. 2008-10-15. http://politicalwire.com/archives/2008/10/15/instant_debate_reaction.html. Retrieved 2008-10-18. [dead link]
  54. ^ Debate exclusive: Obama wins by a hair - Yahoo! News
  55. ^ Holland, Steve McCain has best debate but Obama unscathed Reuters.com (October 16, 2008). Retrieved on 10-16-08.
  56. ^ "Grading the Final Presidential Debate". Time. October 15, 2008. http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1850933,00.html. Retrieved May 26, 2010. 
  57. ^ a b Third Party Debate at Columbia University : Nader, McKinney, Baldwin, Goodman | NowPublic Photo Archives
  58. ^ a b http://www.freeandequal.org/events.php?id=11
  59. ^ YouTube - Third Party Alternative Debate
  60. ^ "AS Hosts Third Party Forum: Six members from third parties attend." by Edward Derbes November 3, 2008
  61. ^ "Panel Picks 4 Debate Sites, Angering Excluded New Orleans"
  62. ^ Well Why Can't We Source: New Orleans Times Picayune Nov. 20, 2007
  63. ^ "New Orleans Consortium Hosts Presidential Forum Powered by Google and YouTube"
  64. ^ "Candidate Eligibility"
  65. ^ 2nd chance for debate in N.O. fizzles- NOLA.com
  66. ^ "McCain challenges Obama to town hall debates - CNN.com". CNN. June 4, 2008. http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/06/04/mccain.town.hall/index.html. Retrieved May 26, 2010. 
  67. ^ Statements on McCain Town Hall Meetings Proposal - June 2008

External links

First debate
Vice-presidential debate
Second debate
Third debate
Third-party Presidential debates

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