Presidential debate ties: Do the candidates coordinate their outfits?

Do Presidential Candidates Discuss Their Outfits Before the Debates?

Do Presidential Candidates Discuss Their Outfits Before the Debates?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 17 2012 5:21 PM

The Obama-Romney Debate: It’s a Tie

A mini-Explainer on whether presidential candidates coordinate their neckwear.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney swapped tie colors from the first debate to the second.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Many astute Explainer readers have noticed that President Obama wore a blue tie in the first debate and a red tie in the second debate. Mitt Romney did the opposite, wearing a red tie in the first encounter and a blue tie in the second. Do the candidates communicate before the debate to make sure they’re not wearing the same thing?

No. It seems to be blind luck that Obama and Romney swapped tie colors in the first two debates. There is no record of wardrobe coordination between presidential campaigns, and the candidates don’t see each other until they walk onto the stage. In fact, matching ties seem to be more the rule than the exception. Obama and John McCain both wore red ties in one of the 2008 debates, although McCain wore a light blue shirt instead of white. John Kerry and George W. Bush both went with dark suits, white shirts, and red ties in a 2004 debate. George W. Bush and Al Gore wore matching suits in 2000. Bill Clinton and Bob Dole went with different shades of red in 1996.

Presidential candidates don’t have particularly eclectic interests in neckwear, largely because they don’t want their clothing to be the focus of post-debate chatter. The last time a candidate made a big deal about his tie was at the 1976 vice presidential debate, when advisors recommended that Bob Dole change his after a pre-debate screen test. Dole invited reporters to join him and his new wife on a trip to a Houston department store to select a replacement. Back then, candidates went out of their way to show the press how relaxed they were on the day of the debate. (Walter Mondale, for his part, let reporters film him playing tennis before his clash with Dole.)

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Wardrobe concerns are as old as the presidential debates themselves. When Richard Nixon came out for his technical check before the first televised presidential debate in 1960, producers realized that his light gray suit was an uncanny match for the backdrop. Worried that Nixon’s outfit would disappear into the background, giving him a ghostly appearance on black-and-white television, they repainted the background in the last minutes. When the debate began, the paint behind the candidates was still wet.

Viewers who made it all the way through Tuesday's debate noticed that Michelle Obama and Ann Romney both wore bright pink. It's possible that the outfits were chosen to support National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but the program's organizers told the Daily Beast they weren't aware of such plans

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Explainer thanks Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV.

Video Explainer: Why are men allowed to have two drinks per day when women can only have one? Hint: It isn't because men are larger.

Brian Palmer covers science and medicine for Slate.