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Did the 1960 Presidential Debates Really Matter?

September 26 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first of four debates between Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Vice President Richard M. Nixon.  Never before had the two major party presidential candidates shared a forum.  And they appeared on television, a medium that had only recently entered the American living room.  “My God,” cried an excited CBS producer, Don Hewitt, “We could be making history.”

Although the debates “made history,” as Hewitt predicted, their significance to the outcome of a closely contested election has long been misunderstood.

“The Great Debates,” as they were dubbed at the time, certainly commanded enormous interest.  A then record audience—some 70 million—watched the first debate.  By comparison, though the total TV audience increased some two-thirds, just 55 million viewed the first Obama-McCain encounter two years ago.

Viewers in 1960, unlike their children and grandchildren, did not have much choice.  Although most households (just under 90 percent) had televisions, in most markets Americans could only chose from stations affiliated with a network—and carrying the debates.  Except in a few large cities, they could watch the debates or nothing at all.  That said, the average debate audience was roughly 20 percent higher than that for regularly scheduled entertainment programs.

Those watching the first debate were surprised.  Republican candidate Nixon was considered a seasoned television performer.  Eight years earlier, a TV appearance had saved his political career.  Charged with having an improper slush fund from wealthy supporters, he had presented a powerful, if maudlin, video defense, concluding with his refusal to surrender a dog, Checkers, a Texas man had given his daughters.  He retained his place on the Republican ticket.  Nixon supporters, as well as many disinterested observers, assumed he would more than hold his own against his younger opponent.  Yet Nixon, who had been hospitalized for a knee infection earlier in the month, appeared sickly.  “He looked like death warmed over,” Hewitt recalled.  Worse, Nixon was badly made-up, and his perspiration became all too visible.  His gray suit blended into the background.  More inexplicably, the supposed master of the home screen appeared the uncertain suitor.  A year earlier, Nixon had confidently engaged in an impromptu debate in Moscow with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.  Facing the junior senator from Massachusetts, Nixon appeared uncertain.  Kennedy looked far better, in a dark suit and blue shirt.

More importantly, he came across as the more comfortable presence.  Unlike Nixon, observed Time magazine, “Kennedy was alert, aggressive and cool.”

Appearances took on added significance because the election focused on the candidates, and not issues.  Both Kennedy and Nixon ran centrist campaigns.  Both presented themselves as moderate champions of civil rights and ardent Cold Warriors.  Indeed, the “debates” were, in fact, joint press conferences because representatives of both candidates believed that a debate format would only work if the two contenders had sharply different positions on the issues.  And, they “were frank to admit no such clear-cut issue existed in the campaign,” reported two scholars who reconstructed the negotiations over the format in late August.  The candidates’ representatives—and the networks—feared that “‘shades of grey’ arguments would result in rapidly diminishing interest from the audience.”

The debates, especially that first encounter, took on added meaning over time.  No one could view a recording of the September 26 confrontation years later without considering the legacies of the two candidates.

Kennedy proved to be an immensely popular president, then a martyred one.  Although Nixon resurrected his political career and won the presidency in 1968, the scandals of Watergate destroyed him.  The secret White House tapes confirmed what many of his detractors had long suspected, that he could be a sanctimonious hypocrite.

Popular memory of the debates has been shaped as well by assumptions about television’s influence.  As the sociologist Michael Schudson has observed, in the later decades of the twentieth century political and journalistic elites concluded that televised images could change the minds of millions of viewers.  The Kennedy-Nixon debates, Schudson has written, are part of a “telemythology” that illustrates “the dangerous powers of television.”  (To be clear, televised images could influence viewers, but not as many—or as deeply—as lay observers, oblivious to the growing scholarly literature on media effects, believed.)  A second, related assumption leans too much on more recent history.  Many have inferred that because TV had an effect in 1976 or 2008, it must have been similarly powerful in 1960.

In weighing the impact of the 1960 debates, the thirty-odd surveys conducted at the time, mostly by academic specialists in public opinion, collectively allow some generalizations.

First, most of those polled believed Kennedy “won” the first debate and Nixon the third, with no clear winner in the other two.

Second, Kennedy’s performance made him appear more up to the job of being president than even some of his supporters—and many Republicans—had thought.  This reaction was most shared in the first debate.

Kennedy had a generally positive image among voters in mid-September, but some doubted that he was ready to assume the presidency.  At 43, Kennedy was the youngest major party presidential nominee since John Breckenridge in 1860.  Nixon was only four years his senior (and the same age as Barack Obama in 2008), but he had been vice president for nearly eight years.  That advantage was all but lost in the first debate.  “Until the camera opened on the Senator and the Vice President,” wrote the journalist Theodore H. White, “Kennedy had been the boy under assault and attack by the Vice President as immature, young, inexperienced.  Now, obviously, in flesh and behavior he was the Vice-President’s equal.”

Third, Kennedy’s performance encouraged many wavering Democrats to commit to him.  Gladys and Kurt Lang’s survey of Queens County, New Yorkers is suggestive here.  Had Nixon performed better, or closer to everyone’s expectations, he might have won some independents and Democrats who had voted for Dwight Eisenhower, the popular Republican incumbent, in 1956.  Another study, conducted by members of my department at the University of Wisconsin, concluded that “Kennedy did not necessarily win the debates but Nixon lost them.”

Nevertheless, Nixon’s loss of support proved marginal.  According to the Gallup Organization, Nixon held a 47 to 46 percent lead over Kennedy the week before the debate; Kennedy had a three-percentage point advantage the week after.  Yet on the eve of the voting, the two men were in a virtual tie, with Kennedy leading 49 to 48 percent.  Kennedy won a plurality of 119,000 votes, or 0.2 percent of those cast.  Had Kennedy not held on to narrow leads in Illinois and Texas, Nixon would have been the victor.

Nixon’s near comeback invites the counter-factual.  Should he have taken President Eisenhower’s advice and declined to debate Kennedy?  The presidential debate historian Alan Schroeder termed Nixon’s decision “one of the greatest miscalculations in campaign history.”  I am not myself convinced that Nixon could have skipped the debates, given the enormous enthusiasm for the televised forums, which had been made possible by Congress’s suspension of the Equal Time provision of the Communication Act.  Nixon should simply have better prepared for the first debate, rested the day of the broadcast, as Kennedy did, and cared more about his appearance.

Still, the state of political journalism in 1960 worked to Nixon’s advantage.  The perception that Kennedy prevailed was not promulgated by the nation’s news media.  The networks resumed regular programming after each debate, none engaged in “instant analysis” of the meetings.  There were no cable news networks, with hosts like Chris Matthews sharing their reactions.  (Matthews after one 2008 debate likened John McCain to a troll.)  Talk radio fifty years ago was a toothless beast, inhibited by the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine.  Newspaper reports on the whole strained to be neutral and refrained from declaring one candidate a "winner."  Headlined the Washington Post, “Big Debate Viewed as Dead Heat.”

In this less media-rich—and less pundit-populated—environment, voters depended largely on co-workers, family, friends and neighbors.  Nixon’s poor performance September 26 may have rattled some supporters, but a study by Paul J. Deutschmann of Michigan State suggested that “talk—mainly to like-minded persons—restored previous voting intentions.”

In that regard, the debates’ limited impact related to an old political rule.  Most viewers had already decided upon a candidate.  A voter who was undecided was in all probability less interested in the election, and less likely to be watching.  As the sociologists Elihu Katz and Jacob J. Feldman determined, the debates “resulted primarily in a strengthening of commitment to one’s own party and candidate.”  Although most of those polled thought Kennedy won the first debate, relatively few said they had changed their minds about their Election Day intentions.  Interviewing “politically minded Washingtonians” immediately after the first confrontation, the Washington Post reported “nearly everybody predisposed toward the man he favored in the first place.”  James Reston of the New York Times concluded that “Kennedy gained more than Nixon, but it was a fielder’s choice, settling nothing.”

If the debates were not as decisive as many assume, they certainly mattered.  As Kennedy’s team realized, he was relatively new to the national scene.  Compared to Nixon, who had twice been elected vice president, Kennedy was unknown to vast numbers of voters.  Just being on the same television stage as Nixon would benefit Kennedy enormously.  “Every time we get those two fellows on the screen side by side,” remarked Kennedy’s TV adviser, “we’re going to gain and he’s going to lose.”

That JFK more than held his own against the vice president that September evening energized the Democratic base.  Huge crowds turned out in Cleveland for a campaign stop the following day.  “The impact of the debate was everywhere,” Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, remembered.  “There were repeated shouts from the crowd, such as ‘Keep after him, Jack.’  ‘You really got him last night, Jack.’”

Although Kennedy’s reception in Cleveland September 27 has long been considered a sign of the debate’s impact and his campaign’s sudden momentum, Nixon had more than enough time to recover.  Indeed, Nixon easily carried Ohio, to JFK’s immense displeasure.  Factors having nothing to do with the debates prevented a comeback.

Among them was Kennedy’s naming of Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas as his running mate.  Johnson’s place on the ticket allowed Kennedy to carry Texas, as well as some other Southern states Nixon coveted.  (Again, legacies affected popular memory.  Those who revered Kennedy and came to detest Johnson preferred to downgrade his importance to the outcome, emphasizing instead JFK’s mastery of television.)  Nixon created his own misfortune, notably his pledge, made upon accepting the nomination, to campaign in all fifty states.  Fulfilling that promise proved complicated because of the twelve days lost during his hospitalization in September.  But Nixon felt honor bound and flew to Alaska the Sunday before the voting, time that would have been far better spent in closely contested states like Illinois and Texas.

As the historian W. J. Rorabaugh recently argued, our understanding of the 1960 campaign owes too much to Theodore H. White’s dramatic The Making of the President 1960.  White stressed the high competence of Kennedy and his campaign staff.  Yet Rorabaugh believes the real story was not Kennedy’s election—but that Nixon ran so well.  Despite his foolish fifty-state pledge, despite appearing so ill—and ill at ease—in the first debate, Nixon nearly won the presidency.

Nixon, for his part, accepted the conventional wisdom about the debates’ impact on the outcome.  Running eight years later, he refused to debate his Democratic opponent.  Nixon instead appeared in carefully stage-managed TV programs produced by his young media guru, Roger Ailes, and subsequently described in Joe McGinniss’s The Selling of the President 1968.  Seeking reelection four years later, Nixon again declined to appear on television with his Democratic rival.  Only a desperate Gerald Ford, well behind in the polls, revived the forum in 1976 when he challenged his Democratic opponent, Jimmy Carter, to debates.  They have been election rituals ever since.

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