Kennedy-Nixon Debates in the Election of 1960

Almost every presidential election of my buzzkilling lifetime has included a debate between the main candidates. And practically every time the debates roll around, the question of style over substance rears its overly made-up face. Do the debates inform voters about the candidates’ stand on the issues of the day, or are they just political beauty contests to see who “looks more presidential”? The larger question always seems to be: has television turned presidential campaigns into little more than content-free pageants for the office? And nearly every time the style-over-substance-in-the-media-age issue comes up, commentators point to the Kennedy-Nixon debates during the election of 1960 as the historic start of that process.

Here’s the standard story (and, by the way, it’s _so_ standard and well-known that it’s been more or less taken as fact for over fifty years). Democrat John Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon were both young, World War II Navy veterans who had served in Congress since 1947. Further, Nixon had been Vice President under Eisenhower since 1953. And they met in the first-ever presidential debate on September 26, 1960 in Chicago. American networks televised it nationwide. JFK appeared healthy, handsome, well-dressed, and gave confident and articulate answers to the debate questions. Nixon, on the other hand, looked haggard, sweaty, awkward, and was plagued by five-o’clock shadow. The differences in appearance swamped the differences in the candidates’ policy positions in the mind of television viewers, and Kennedy was thought to have won the debate because he projected a much better image. In fact, so the story goes, those who listened to the debate on radio thought that Nixon had won because his answers were more substantial. And the radio listeners weren’t biased by Kennedy’s better visual appearance.

There are so many problems with this commonly-held interpretation of the debate that it’s almost difficult to know where to start. But let me begin by saying it’s not surprising that this myth has become so strongly attached to the American historical consciousness. It’s been repeated and published almost constantly over the decades, and regularly appears in the history textbooks that we’ve all read in school. So we’ve heard it from sources that are generally considered solid and legitimate, and it’s no wonder that it’s become part of our political DNA.

But the actual evidence for the Nixon-lost-the-debate-because-he-looked-bad argument is so shaky that it hasn’t stood up even to basic scrutiny. And the scholarly research done by Professor David Greenberg at Rutgers University, Professor James Druckman at Northwestern University, and many others, has scrutinized it further. Taken together, these studies by high-level Buzzkillers have show that the 1960 opinion polls of TV and radio audiences that were the basis of this “image was everything” conclusion were fatally flawed (in fact, the radio one was amateur-ish). Further, all the serious research done on the debates has proved that the “Kennedy won because he looked good and Nixon looked bad” conclusion is so vastly overstated that it should be considered a myth.

Let’s get down to details about what happened.

The Kennedy and Nixon campaigns had agreed to a series of four debates during the 1960 election. These were the first presidential debates in American history. (The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1850 were for the office of senator from Illinois, not President.) The first Kennedy-Nixon debate on September 26th was most famous, attracted the largest audience, and was the origin of the myth about appearance influencing voters.

Nixon had recently gotten out of the hospital, where he had been laid up for two weeks for a knee injury that had become infected. He didn’t take any additional time off to recover, and he even went to campaign events until just a few hours before going to the television studio. Kennedy, by contrast, had taken time to rest, to work on his tan, and to prepare specifically for the debate. He also wore a dark suit to set him apart from the studio’s background. The difference showed. Wearing a lighter suit and almost blending in with the studio walls, Nixon looked pale and tired, and since he had refused to put on television make-up, his beard stubble showed visibly on-screen. This was noticed at the time by Nixon campaign staff and even by the Vice-President’s mother, who called him afterwards to ask whether he was sick. There’s no doubt that Kennedy looked better than Nixon in that first debate. But did that actually make a difference? Did people notice each candidate’s appearance enough to influence their view of who won the debate, and perhaps influence their voting choice in that November’s election?

Naturally, public opinion polls were taken after the debate, but they were rife with problems. In the first place, although opinion polls had been around for a while, they didn’t have the methodological rigor that major polls nowadays do. Nor did many of the polling organizations think carefully about factors that are now essential before pollsters even begin asking voters for their opinions. These include geographic area of those polled, and pre-debate preferences in terms of party or religion. Further, none of the polling organizations asked respondents whether they had watched the debate on television or listened to it on the radio.

Except for one polling organization. A market survey conducted by Sindlinger & Company after the first debate showed that 30% of those who watched the debate on television thought that Kennedy had won, while 29% thought that Nixon had won. 49% of those who listened to the radio broadcast of the debate thought Nixon had won, while only 21% said that Kennedy had won. These results were the origin of the story that Nixon won on radio and Kennedy won on television. Because of this survey, many commentators in 1960 chalked Kennedy’s television victory up to his healthier appearance. And countless more have jumped on that analytical bandwagon.

Here are the problems with that analysis:

  • The Sindlinger poll only surveyed 282 radio listeners, which is between 600 and 800 fewer than is considered minimum number for a legitimate survey.
  • More than 87% of American households had televisions by 1960. People who only had radios overwhelmingly lived in rural areas (in some cases because they were out of the range of television signals). Kennedy had little support in rural areas, partly because they were heavily Protestant, but also because they were heavily Republican.

So the Sindlinger poll falls apart on even cursory scrutiny because of questionable methodology. But there are two other reasons why this ingrained political myth is faulty.

First, other “evidence” of the difference between the TV and the radio versions of the debates is all anecdotal, and pretty slender at that. Ralph McGill, a prominent syndicated columnist wrote at the time that he had polled “a number of people” who had heard the first debate over the radio, and that they “unanimously thought Mr. Nixon had the better of it.” But this was hardly a scientific poll and, at the very most, consisted of two dozen or so people. New York Herald Tribune columnist, Earl Mazo, reported the same thing. That is, he had talked to “a number of people” and they all thought Nixon had won the radio version of the debate.

The second main reason we all believe this is because of the work of journalist and popular historian, Theodore H. White. White’s genius was to realize that presidential elections provided great opportunities to analyze American culture and history in the making. His Making of the President, 1960 was not only the first of four such studies (1964, 1968, and 1972), it won the Pulitzer Prize and heavily influenced at least two generations of American readers (including yours truly). White’s work was so widely read, and so well-regarded, that he was seen as the best chronicler or the history of presidential elections.

Unfortunately, White repeated the flawed conclusions drawn from the Sindlinger poll and other stories he heard from the syndicated columnists mentioned earlier. Those conclusions were that Nixon lost the television debate but did better according to the radio audience. (White actually wrote the the two candidates did “equally well” on the radio.) He wrote these conclusions as history, and people read and accepted them as history. White didn’t provide footnotes or citations to the surveys he mentioned or to the columnists whose interpretations he used, so, technically speaking, subsequent scholars could not scrutinize his opinion survey conclusions. But since the Sindlinger poll was the only one that “analyzed” a difference between TV viewers and radio listeners, it’s safe to conclude that that’s where White got his “numbers.”

Once Theodore H. White’s book became, more or less, the standard account of the 1960 election, the faulty story of Kennedy’s “image” winning the TV debate and Nixon’s “substance” winning the radio debate became gospel. And Buzzkill Institute researchers fear that it will be repeated as gospel. And we worry that it will continue to influence how candidates prepare for debates, and how future presidential debates are compared to the very first one in 1960.

Now that you know the truth, Buzzkillers, don’t fall for this myth during the next presidential debate.

1960 Debate Videos:

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Posted in

Leave a Comment