Chicago, September 26, 1960. This date marks the first of four live-televised presidential debates between U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. It is commonly believed that this debate, broadcasted live on national television and radio, strongly affected the outcome of the presidential campaign in that year.
However, the belief that US Americans would decide for a candidate based on outward appearance, provided by television images, proved to be unfounded.
According to communication scientists, the overall effects of live broadcasts are highly overrated. People do not immediately decide who they are going to vote for during the duration of the broadcast, and it is also not clear who will win the debate until it is finished. Instead, it is the voice of the media which more strongly influences public opinion.
Experts agree that performance still indeed plays an important part in the campaign, but more important are the first five minutes after the debate. Not until then will voters form their opinion, especially those who are interested in politics but who, up to this point, are still undecided. Journalists and the media are the ones responsible for the interpretation of the duel by telling the people what they should think. They elect a winner and therefore shape public opinion. Strategists of the election campaign know this, which is why they have several specialists who comment on the debate so that there is already an interpretation available for the people.
Looking back at articles published on September 27, 1960, one day after the debate, both candidates seem to have been equally judged. The critics discussed the candidates’ opinion on domestic issues and foreign policy, but they did not elect a winner. Both Kennedy and Nixon were strong and motivated candidates who fought hard to win the presidential election and the media reflected this fact. Not surprisingly, it seems that the voters, too, had a hard time making a decision. The New York Times stated »that a considerable number of voters were apparently far from making any vote decision yet« and this was echoed by voters themselves: »The debate has not changed my mind at all. I’m still unconvinced.« (Unidentified person as quoted in the NYT, September 27, 1960). This is probably why this was one of the closest elections, with regard to the popular vote, of all times, with Kennedy receiving only 113,000 votes more than Nixon. Apparently, the media had less influence on the people and their decisions during the 1960 election campaigns than originally believed.
It seems that people always try to find justifications as to why John F. Kennedy won the presidential election. He was criticized for being too young to become president and for lacking the necessary experience, but these accusations failed to prevent him from winning the presidency. Kennedy’s handsome appearance, transported by national television to the homes of Americans, and the favorable treatment of him by the press may have added to his success, but these factors alone did not win him the presidency. He was an inspiring man who had a lot of people supporting him. And maybe that’s the answer to his success.