10 ‘Aleppo Moments’ That Defined Presidential Campaigns


Presidential hopeful Gary Johnson shocked supporters when he struggled with a question on Syria’s war-torn cities. He asked “What is Aleppo?” raising concerns over his ability to handle foreign affairs. The gaffe shows one bad moment can impact a campaign. Here are 10 “Aleppo moments” defining presidential candidates:

1960 Nixon-Kennedy Debate. The first TV presidential debate debuted, featuring John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Nixon, who had been ill, sweated throughout. In contrast, the young and photogenic Kennedy came across as healthy and was named the winner. Those who only listened to the radio, though, thought Nixon won.

1976 Carter-Ford Debate. A relatively unknown Jimmy Carter faced off against Gerald Ford. When asked about the Cold War, Ford said ”there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” New York Times reporter Max Frankel was confused, saying, “I’m sorry, what?” Ford doubled down, which some believe cost him the election.

It featured Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Self-financed Reagan invited all candidates. When a moderator tried to cut the sound, Reagan said, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.” His name was Breen, and the line was from 1948 flick “State of the Union.” Voters made him President anyway.

1980 GOP Debate.

1980 Carter-Reagan Debate. Voters were concerned about nuclear weapons. During the debate, Carter said he asked his daughter about the most important issue in the country and she replied, “the control of nuclear arms.” Opponents accused Carter of relying on a 13-year-old for advice. A week later, he lost the election.

1988 Bush-Dukakis Debate: Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis, “[I]f Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis didn’t hesitate, confirming opposition to the penalty. In under two minutes, Dukakis cemented an image soft on crime. He lost the election.

1992 VP Debate. The Independent party, led by Ross Perot, made it to the debate stage. Perot’s running mate, James Stockdale, appeared with Al Gore and Dan Quayle. Stockdale opened saying: “Who am I? Why am I here?” Meant as an introduction, the lines became questions voters asked – and fodder for Saturday Night Live.

In a townhall-style debate, George H. W. Bush seemed disinterested while debating Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. At one point, he checked his watch: a peek may have cost him the election. In 2008, when Bush was asked what he had been thinking, he said, “Only 10 more minutes of this crap.”

1992 Presidential Debate.

2000 Bush-Gore Debate. Al Gore got annoyed with answers from George W. Bush. As Bush spoke, Gore was caught sighing and rolling his eyes. Without words, Gore sent a message many found condescending. Viewers found it hilarious parodied on Saturday Night Live, but voters didn’t. Bush won the hotly contested election.

2011 GOP Debate. Rick Perry vowed to eliminate three federal agencies if elected. When asked about his plan, Perry named the Departments of Education and Commerce, but sputtered, “I can’t, the third one. I can’t, sorry” before saying “Oops.” (It was the Dept. of Energy.) Perry suspended his campaign two months later.

2016 GOP Debate. Marco Rubio was a GOP frontrunner before the debates. But when Rubio repeated what sounded like a canned phrase, Chris Christie pounced, saying he rehearsed soundbites. The accusations rattled Rubio, whose performance would become the target of jokes on social media. A month later, Rubio dropped out.

For more Presidential debate history, check out this prior post.

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