Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy and Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon participated in four debates spaced out between September 26th and October 21st during the presidential election of 1960. You may recall from your history class that these were the first televised debates. This was huge. How huge? Let’s just say that, according to entertainmentacene360.com, 87% of American households had a tv set. And they used them.
The television was a common household item and viewers were ready to extend their television experience past entertainment. For the first of the debates, which took place in Chicago, Illinois, 66.4 million people tuned in to swoon over JFK (debates.org). Oh, and to listen to Nixon talk about serious topics.
JFK had just finished up his campaign in California, and he had that summertime glow which perfectly set off his pearly whites. He was a fit and eloquent young man who performed well in front of an audience. Then there was Nixon. He had injured his knee on a car door while campaigning in North Carolina, but he refused to rest. He had an impressive, yet unwise, goal to campaign in all 50 states before the election on November 8. A tragic mistake. He showed up to the debates as a pale, haggard-looking, old man who appeared sweaty and fidgety under Kennedy’s confidant gaze.
Before television, no one would have cared about their appearance. All they had were the words of the candidates, and that was enough. But Nixon was not so lucky. The debate polls came in. The radio listeners thought that Nixon had won. However, the television viewers thought that JFK had won.
Image is powerful. So powerful. After these televised debates, Nixon lost his lead in the election. Kennedy surged on ahead for a narrow victory, but a victory nonetheless (just a .17% lead in the popular vote!). Do you think that these four debates swung the election in Kennedy’s favor? Perhaps you were alive for this debate and remember it well. Feel free to comment below with your opinion on the matter.
I remember learning about these debates in U.S. History class. Everyone remembers that 1. they were the first televised debates and 2. they proved that appearance matters more than words. This doesn’t make us voters look too good.
However, whilst browsing Wikipedia (sorry to all my teachers ever) I found a legitimate source with a conflicting opinion. This quote comes via the Encyclopedia of Media and Politics.
Evidence in support of this belief is mainly limited to sketchy reports about a market survey conducted by Sindlinger & Company in which 49% of those who listened to the debates on radio said Nixon had won compared to 21% naming Kennedy, while 30% of those who watched the debates on television said Kennedy had won compared to 29% naming Nixon. Contrary to popular belief, the Sindlinger evidence suggests not that Kennedy won on television but that the candidates tied on television while Nixon won on radio. However, no details about the sample have ever been reported, and it is unclear whether the survey results can be generalized to a larger population. Moreover, since 87% of American households had a television in 1960, most people were able to watch the debates. The fraction of Americans lacking access to television in 1960 was concentrated in rural areas and particularly in southern and western states, places that were unlikely to hold significant proportions of Catholic voters. Radio listeners in 1960 were therefore predisposed to vote Republican, casting further doubt on whether the Sindlinger survey results speak to the effects of television or merely of the urban/rural split in Nixon’s support.
From this journalistically sound information, it appears that the information from the 1960 debates were exaggerated for effect. It definitely made for an interesting study. But, in the end, the candidates appeared to tie on television, while Nixon won on the radio. Furthermore, Republicans were more likely to be listening on the radio, and thus more likely to support Nixon, and vice versa. This is actually still true now. Republican radio personalities rule talk radio. No question.
While this does present a more balanced view of the debate reactions, I don’t think that this completely negates it’s significance. For Nixon to go from a tie on television, to a pretty clear win on radio, is odd. Nixon had more experience than Kennedy and the content of his words showed that. Kennedy was more confidant than Nixon and the appearance of his face and body language showed that. This means that the radio listeners got the best of Nixon, while the television viewers got the worst of Nixon. And vice versa.
In addition, when radio listeners tune out their ears, they miss the whole message. However, when television viewers tune out their ears, their eyes can still interpret the message visually. Perhaps you have experienced this before. Sometimes when I’m watching a film, especially a complex one, I tune out the words and just watch the moving pictures. It’s much easier, and I feel like I am still following along until I have to turn to the unfortunate friend who has agreed to watch a complex film with me and ask, “Wait, what’s happening?” With the debates, a complex and heavy program, perhaps viewers who could not keep up with the political talk unknowingly judged the candidates based on their appearance instead. After all, our brain processes much of our surroundings subconsciously. For example, you probably remember where you ate dinner yesterday even though you didn’t consciously commit it to memory.
In conclusion, appearance did not play into the 1960 debates as much as we had originally thought. However, there is definitely still a correlation there. But, if we’re being fair, Kennedy was definitely not just handsome, he was very smart and one of the best public speakers America has ever seen. I’m sure that those who voted for him in the polls were influenced by these factors as well. This was not Stephanie Myers v. Shakespeare. This was more like Mark Twain v. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Who are you going to pick, you know?