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How the Kennedy-Nixon Debates Changed Politics

50 years later, television still dominates presidential campaigns

whether the debates made a difference in an election that sent Kennedy to the White House by a margin less than two-tenths of a percentage point.

A Gallup Poll analysis, published in 2008, noted that what had been a dead heat between Kennedy and Nixon before the first debate shifted to a 4-point edge for Kennedy going into the fourth debate. The analysis contended that while "it is clear the debates didn't produce a major shift in the structure of the election … this debate-period boost in [Kennedy’s support] could very well have accounted for the outcome."

Rules of the Game

Today it's hard to imagine presidential campaign seasons without televised debates. But after 1960, they weren't repeated until 1976.

Given Nixon's experience, it was hardly surprising that he declined his opponents' challenges to debate when he successfully sought the presidency in 1968 and 1972. Perhaps making the gamesmanship moot, Congress, which had facilitated the 1960 debates by suspending the FCC’s so-called equal time rule to exclude third party candidates, failed to take such action in the next three presidential contests.

Following a reinterpretation of the equal time rule by the FCC, televised debates resumed in 1976.

Inhibitions

They have had an impact on the public's perception of candidates, perhaps most notably in 2000, when Vice President Al Gore slipped in the polls after letting out audible sighs in reaction to comments by his Republican opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, in their first debate.

But television is primarily a visual medium, "so candidates have learned to be very careful about the non-verbal aspects of communications. Often those are the parts most remembered by viewers," noted West, a former Brown University political science professor. Today's candidates are unlikely to repeat George H.W. Bush's habit of checking his watch during a 1992 town hall-style debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.

Techno Democracy

In his landmark work, The Making of the President 1960, author Theodore H. White saw the debates as utilizing technology to democratize ancient tradition.

"What [the debates] did best was to give the voters of a great democracy a living portrait of two men under stress and let the voters decide, by instinct and emotion, which style and pattern of behavior under stress they preferred in their leader," White wrote.

"The political roots of this tribal sense of the whole go back as far as the Roman Senate. ... This sense of personal choice of leader has been missing for centuries from modern civilization. … What the TV debates did was to generalize this tribal sense of participation, this emotional judgment of the leader, from the few to the multitude."

Having rewritten the political playbook, technology didn't interfere with a similar magnitude until 2008, when, according to the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of Internet users went online to participate or receive their news about the presidential campaign.

Louis Peck is a veteran Washington reporter and editor who has covered several presidential campaigns and debates.

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