7 On-Air Flubs During Presidential Debates That Broke The Candidate

ST. LOUIS, UNITED STATES: Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore (R) answers a question as Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush listens during their town hall style debate at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, 17 October, 2000. AFP PHOTO/Roberto SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
Source: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are close in the polls. After months of nonstop insults between the two, it's time for them to come together at Hofstra University on Long Island on Sept. 26 for the first of three presidential debates. With Clinton and Trump competing in an increasingly tightening fight to the finish, it's hard not to be excited to see the two of them face-to-face. Between Trump's constant bombastic spewing and Clinton's recently ramped-up attacks (implications of treason, anyone?), it will be a sight to behold.

The debates represent perhaps the best chance for Trump to turn things around and start beating Clinton — they're the only truly unscripted moments in a campaign full of teleprompters, ads, and planned appearances. But losing the script also means losing a safety net, and letting whatever happens happen. Both candidates have said their share of things in this campaign they probably wish they could take back. And with something like 60 million people expected to tune in, a mistake on live television could become what one of these two is remembered for long after this race is done.

It's happened before, so Clinton and Trump, be warned. Here's list of the bad debate answers and cringe-inducing moments that brought a candidate flying high all the way back down to earth.

1. The Rubio-Bot Malfunctions

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Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had to prove that he was more than a first-term senator — that despite his lack of experience, he had the fortitude to be president. But New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made him look like all style and no substance, all fancy prepared lines and no actual inner judgment. Christie slammed Rubio for his "drive-by attack at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information, and then the memorized 25-second speech."

2. Bored Gore

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It may seem like a simpler time, but back in 2000, we actually cared about presidential candidates being respectful toward each other. George W. Bush and Al Gore ran a friendly (relative to 2016) presidential race. But once the debate came around, Gore was completely unable to hide his disdain for Bush's answers. He visibly sighed while Bush responded to his question. 

3. Dukakis Isn't Bothered By Wife's Hypothetical Murder

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Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis got asked a pretty ridiculous question by CNN's Bernard Shaw about what he would do if his wife was murdered. Granted, it was meant to press him on his death penalty views, but it was certainly jarring to hear a question start, "If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered..." Unfortunately for Dukakis, his even-keeled response irked voters more than the question. His answer was to cite policy figures and ignore the emotional impact, stating, "No, I don't, Bernard, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime."

4. A Third-Party VP Points Out His Own Irrelevancy


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It's hard for third-party candidates to convince voters they matter. And it's hard as well for vice presidential nominees to do the same. If you're both, maybe don't start your opening statement by highlighting it. Admiral Stockdale, Ross Perot's running mate in 1992, apparently didn't even want to be on the ticket. According to MinnPost, Perot promised Stockdale he'd be replaced by another VP candidate. That proved false — and Stockdale's feelings about having to be on the ticket were abundantly clear at the debate. His opening line was, "Who am I? Why am I here?”

5. Bush Gets Distracted

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Being the sitting president can make you seem detached. But one thing you probably shouldn't do is look uninterested in a voter's question, as George H.W. Bush did in this clip from the 1992 town hall debate. First he checked his watch. Then he ignored the focus of the voter's question. And then he argued with her about whether the question was even fair. If you're looking for a perfect example of a president looking out of touch with the American people, it's hard to find better than this. 

6. The Commander-In-Chief Forgets His National Security Briefing

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If you're the president, getting daily national security briefing, one would assume you know what countries are being dominated by the country you lead's international rival. President Gerald Ford apparently didn't. When debating Jimmy Carter, who proceeded to beat him for the presidency, in 1976, Ford said, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Moderator Max Frankel of The New York Times responded to this remark with, "I'm sorry, what?" It may be worse than Gary Johnson's "And what is Aleppo?"

7. "Please Proceed, Governor"

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If your opponent is screwing up, it's probably a good idea to let them continue to do so. In 2012, Mitt Romney had his facts wrong, so President Obama decided it was a good idea to let him keep talking. Romney was on a stream of attacking Obama for not calling the September 11, 2012 Benghazi attack an "act of terror" for 14 days. That was not, in fact, the case — and Obama and moderator Candy Crowley appeared to call him out for it in a big way,

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