September 26, 2016

A supposedly spontaneous clever one-liner that has become a leading measuring stick – to some, the only measuring stick – for success in a debate.

“Zinger” is one of many political words originating in the sports world. The Online Etymology Dictionary says that in 1957, it was baseball slang for a pitcher’s fastball that caught unsuspecting hitters off guard. But by 1970, as political discourse became less civil and more confrontational, it turned into a catchy synonym for a barbed quip.

Former President George W. Bush, interviewed for a PBS special about his 2000 face-offs with Al Gore, credited Ronald Reagan with elevating the zinger’s importance. In one of his 1980 debates with President Jimmy Carter, Reagan drew laughter when he uttered the now-famous “There you go again” – a way of suggesting that Carter was regularly bending the truth.

“That became the measure of success to a certain extent … Unless there is the zinger or the kind of the cute line or whatever, the quotable moment, there’s no victor in a sense,” Bush said.

Since then, politicians have discovered that zingers are what voters respond to – much more than actual policies. And news sites have found again and again that they make for easy listicles.

The late Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) is best remembered for telling Republican Dan Quayle in their 1988 vice-presidential debate, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Bloomberg News reported in 2012 that Sen. Bentsen had been fully prepared for his opponent to invoke JFK, having seen numerous transcripts of him making the comparison, and simply waited for the right moment to pounce.

In this all-pervasive Twitter age, journalists are constantly on guard against zingers that seem overly scripted. During the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders pulled one out on Hillary Clinton when she talked about her plans for when she became president: “Secretary Clinton, you’re not in the White House yet.” Vox called it “weird, out-of-place,” while Mediaite agreed that it “backfired.”

And for all of the attention that they draw, political scientists say zingers – and indeed, debates as a whole – are not really essential in shifting opinions.

“Scholars who have looked most carefully at the data have found that, when it comes to shifting enough votes to decide the outcome of the election, presidential debates have rarely, if ever, mattered,” George Washington University’s John Sides concluded in 2012.

Professor Sides added, “At best, debates provide a ‘nudge’ in very close elections like 1960, 1980 and 2000.” Given how close this year’s election appears to be, it’s hardly surprising that Clinton has been busily working on rehearsed attack lines – and that even Trump, known for just winging it, is doing some advance prep.

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