John F Kennedy and Richard M Nixon

John F Kennedy and Richard M Nixon

As we prepare for the first debate between President Obama and challenger Romney, it’s worthwhile to note that on Sept. 26, 1960 politics entered the television age.

On that date, about 70 million U.S. viewers tuned in to watch Sen. John Kennedy, 43, (D-MA) and Vice President Richard Nixon, 47, (R-CA) in the first televised presidential debate. It was the first of four debates and focused on domestic issues.

In 1960, 88% of American households had televisions, mostly black-and-white sets. In 1950 it had been only one household in 10.

Nixon had been in the hospital for two weeks and was pale and thin; Kennedy had been campaigning in California and was tan. Americans who watched the debate gve the nod to Kennedy; those who listened on the radio gave the nod to Nixon.

Although many assert that Nixon would have won the election had he not been judged the loser by the TV audience, research isn’t quite so definitive:

The televised Great Debates had a significant impact on voters in 1960, on national elections since, and, indeed, on our concerns for democracy itself. The impact on the election of 1960 was significant, albeit subtle. Commentators broadly agree that the first debate accelerated Democratic support for Kennedy. In hindsight, however, it seems the debates were not, as once thought, the turning-point in the election. Rather than encouraging viewers to change their vote, the debates appear to have simply solidified prior allegiances. In short, many would argue that Kennedy would have won the election with or without the Great Debates.

Yet voters in 1960 did vote with the Great Debates in mind. At election time, more than half of all voters reported that the Great Debates had influenced their opinion; 6% reported that their vote was the result of the debates alone. Thus, regardless of whether the debates changed the election result, voters pointed to the debates as a significant reason for electing Kennedy. ~ Museum of Broadcast Television

It would be 16 years before there was another Presidential debate in the U.S., although other western democracies would soon follow the precedent of 1960. Since 1988, the debates have been run by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The location of that first debate: WBBM-TV, CBS affiliate in Chicago. The format: Eight minute opening statements; two and a half minute responses to questions; optional rebuttal; three minute closing statements.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6Xn4ipHiwE
KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst
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