Because he looked poised and confident, it is often said that television viewers felt Senator John F. Kennedy won the first-ever U.S. presidential debate in 1960.
Radio listeners, perhaps put off by Kennedy’s New England accent, thought his Republican foe, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, performed better.
The notion there was marked disagreement among viewers and listeners is dubious but hardy — and it popped up yesterday in the New York Times, in a review of an art exhibition at Hofstra University Museum.
The exhibition includes, the review said, a “video clip from the televised presidential debate between Vice President Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960,” a clip that “seems to show the handsome, youthful Kennedy trouncing a visibly sweating Nixon. (Those who caught the debate on the radio thought Nixon trumped Kennedy.)”
Well, not really: There’s no solid, persuasive evidence to support the notion that radio listeners felt that Nixon had “trumped” Kennedy, or that listeners sharply disagreed with television viewers about who did better in the debate, which took place in Chicago on September 26, 1960.
That there must have been such an effect is appealing on many levels, notably because it suggests that appearance can trump substance in politics.
But the notion of viewer-listener disagreement in the 1960 debate is a media myth — a media myth that endures despite being thoroughly dismantled nearly 30 years ago in research published by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.
In an article in Central States Speech Journal in 1987, Vancil and Pendell pointed out that accounts of viewer-listener disagreement about the debate typically were anecdotal and hardly representative of the American electorate in 1960.
They also called attention to “a false impression” that “major polling organizations, such as Gallup, concentrated part of their attention on the reactions of radio listeners.” That hardly was the case.
The one polling organization that did identify radio listeners in a post-debate survey was Sindlinger & Co.
Sindlinger reported that poll respondents who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won, by a 2-to-1 margin.
But the Sindlinger sub-sample of radio listeners included 282 respondents. Of that number, only 178 offered an opinion about the debate winner, which was far too few to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions, Vancil and Pendell noted.
Not only was the sub-sample unrepresentative, it did not identify from where the sub-sample of radio listeners was drawn. “A location bias in the radio sample,” Vancil and Pendell pointed out, “could have caused dramatic effects on the selection of a debate winner. A rural bias, quite possible because of the relatively limited access of rural areas to television in 1960, would have favored Nixon.”
Those and other defects render the Sindlinger result meaningless.
Vancil and Pendell’s article also questioned the notion that Nixon’s haggard and sweaty appearance during the debate was necessarily decisive to views about who won the encounter.
“Appearance problems, such as Nixon’s perspiring brow, could have had a negative impact on viewer perceptions,” they wrote, “but it is also possible for viewers to be sympathetic to such problems, or to interpret them as evidence of attractive or desirable qualities.”
They added: “Even if viewers disliked Nixon’s physical appearance, the relative importance of this factor is a matter of conjecture.”
It is important to note that a good deal of post-debate commentary declared the Kennedy-Nixon encounter — the first of four debates during the 1960 campaign — to have been a draw, or nearly so.
For example, James Reston, then the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote:
“Who took the first round is a matter of individual opinion. My own view is that Kennedy gained more than Nixon, but it was a fielder’s choice, settling nothing.”
Writing in the old New York Herald Tribune, columnist John Crosby stated:
“I think Kennedy outpointed Nixon. I think it was a close fight and perhaps a disappointing one. … Both candidates were awfully cautious, as if they’d been warned that a mistake could cost them the whole prize.”
The Washington Post saw it another way, stating in a post-debate editorial:
“Of the two performances, Mr. Nixon’s was probably the smoother. He is an accomplished debater with a professional polish, and he managed to convey a slightly patronizing air of a master instructing a pupil.”
Right after the Kennedy-Nixon encounter, the Associated Press news service conducted an unscientific survey of 100 Americans in 10 major U.S. cities and reported finding that most respondents said they weren’t influenced by the exchanges.
“Only a few persons,” the AP reported, “said they had actually switched from one candidate to the other because of the debate.”
A Gallup poll taken in the week after the debate and released October 11, 1960, reported that 43 percent of voters thought Kennedy “did the better job” in the debate; 23 percent thought Nixon was better, and 29 percent said both candidates were about the same. Five percent offered no opinion.
The survey, moreover, detected no marked, post-debate shift of support to Kennedy. The survey reported Kennedy to be narrowly ahead, by 49 percent to 46 percent, with 5 percent undecided.
“The prudent reader can see,” wrote George Gallup, the head of the polling organization, in reporting those results, that polling “has not reached the degree of accuracy required to say with certainty which candidate is ahead in a close race such as the present one.”
Kennedy narrowly won the election, receiving 49.72 percent of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.55 percent.
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- Who won ’60 debate? Can’t say: Didn’t see it on TV
- Appearance decisive in politics? Revisiting the Kennedy-Nixon debate
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- Recalling George Romney’s ‘brainwashing’ — and Gene McCarthy’s ‘light rinse’ retort
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