W. Joseph Campbell

Appearance decisive in politics? Revisiting the Kennedy-Nixon debate

In Debunking, Media myths on June 23, 2011 at 4:04 am

First presidential debate, 1960

The power of the image in presidential politics was never better demonstrated than in September 1960.

That was when John F. Kennedy supposedly won the first-ever televised debate between U.S. presidential candidates because he appeared so poised, rested, and telegenic compared to his sweaty, haggard-looking rival, Richard M. Nixon.

Most television viewers thought so, supposedly.

But people who listened to the debate on radio had a distinctly different impression: They thought Nixon won the encounter.

So goes one of the most delicious, enduring, and often-repeated myths about the American media and politics, which was served up yesterday in a commentary posted online yesterday by Canadian-based Troy Media.

The commentary declared:

“The major story of the first televised presidential debate in 1960 became the photogenic appeal of John F. Kennedy versus the sickly look of his opponent, Richard Nixon. … Radio listeners, who heard the debate but hadn’t seen it, gave the victory to Nixon. But a large majority of television viewers recognized Kennedy as the winner.”

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement — that television viewers and radio listeners had starkly different impressions of the inaugural presidential debate — was destroyed (or ought to have been) in research published in 1987 by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

They noted that reports of viewer-listener disagreement were thin, flawed, and anecdotal, and the few surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect were too small and unrepresentative to allow for confident assessments.

Vancil and Pendell concluded:

“The relationship of substance and appearance is complex, and the effects of electronic media on political communication surely deserve attention. However, there is little merit in speculation based upon unsupported anecdotes of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.”

Vancil and Pendell’s research also challenged the notion that Nixon’s haggard look much contributed to views about the debate.

“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’s revealing to note that a good deal of post-debate commentary deemed the encounter a draw.

For example, James Reston, then the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote shortly after the debate: “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.”

But 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 conducted an unscientific survey of 100 Americans in 10 major U.S. cities and reported 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.”

And it was hardly the case that “a large majority of television viewers recognized Kennedy as the winner” of the debate, as the Troy Media commentary claimed.

A Gallup poll conducted during 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 shift of support to Kennedy, post-debate. The survey reported Kennedy to be narrowly ahead, by 49 percent to 46 percent, with 5 percent undecided.

“The prudent reader can see,” George Gallup, head of the polling organization, stated in reporting those results, “that polling accuracy 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.”


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