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Revisiting the first presidential debate — and its improbable audience split

Revisiting the first presidential debate — and its improbable audience split
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It’s long been an article of campaign lore that Sen. John F. Kennedy demolished Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the first-ever televised debate between the presidential nominees of America’s leading political parties. Kennedy was cool and self-confident before the camera that night, unlike Nixon whose sweaty brow and 5 o’clock shadow turned off television audiences.  The consensus has become that the telegenic Kennedy won hands down. 

But that’s not how observers tended to see it at the time. The consensus we recognize today did not congeal right away, as contemporaneous accounts of the debate 60 years ago make clear.

Indeed, the near-consensus in the press was that the hour-long encounter on Sept. 26, 1960, had been a standoff — “A slow fight to a draw,” as the Los Angeles Times declared in its headline over a post-debate editorial. “Who won?” the Boston Globe asked in its report about the encounter. “You can toss a coin.” 

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James Reston, a nationally prominent columnist and Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote soon after the first of what were four debates that fall: “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.”

A few critics noted, usually in passing, that the camera had been unkind to Nixon. Thomas O’Neill of the Baltimore Sun was especially harsh, writing: “The electronic eye tends to present Vice President Nixon on the screen like a picture on a post office bulletin board. Attempts by the cosmeticians to produce a more lovable image were lamentably unsuccessful.” 

But not all analysts and observers thought Nixon was dreadful that night.

“Of the two performances,” the Washington Post said in its post-debate editorial, “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.”

Saul Pett, a feature writer for The Associated Press, was impressed by Nixon’s affability. “On general folksiness both before and during the debate,” Pett wrote, “my scorecard showed Nixon ahead at least 8 to 1.” Nixon, he added, “smiled more often and more broadly, especially at the start and close of a remark. Kennedy only allowed himself the luxury of a quarter-smile now and then.”

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The debate moderator, Howard K. Smith of ABC News, later said he thought “Nixon was marginally better.” Russell Baker, who covered the debate for the New York Times, likewise gave Nixon “a slight edge in what little argument there had been” during the debate.

Even if his appearance was not universally regarded as awful, Nixon’s debate tactics were certainly puzzling. Instead of seeking the initiative, Nixon tried to argue on his opponent’s terms.

Kennedy spoke first and declared in an eight-minute opening statement, “I should make it very clear that I do not think we’re doing enough, that I am not satisfied as an American with the progress that we’re making.” Rather than chide Kennedy for a fairly downbeat assessment of the country, Nixon broadly agreed, saying: “I subscribe completely to the spirit that Senator Kennedy has expressed tonight, the spirit that the United States should move ahead.”

Perhaps Nixon figured that by being gracious he could appeal to voters unsure or hesitant about Kennedy. But adopting a defensive, “me-too” approach at the outset was an elementary mistake by a supposedly accomplished debater, the man who had famously confronted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev the year before at an American exhibition in Moscow.

Nixon’s imitative tactics invited mockery from the likes of Joseph Alsop, a syndicated columnist who exaggerated only slightly in writing: “Nixon insisted so strongly that he shared all Senator Kennedy’s worthy goals that one expected a Nixonian endorsement of the Democratic platform at any moment.”

Over the decades, memories of Nixon’s baffling tactics have been obscured by enduring fascination with a phenomenon that has come to define the first debate — a phenomenon that almost surely did not occur.

The phenomenon is known as “viewer-listener disagreement,” which means that Kennedy won the debate among television viewers while Nixon won among radio listeners. It’s an optics-driven interpretation that serves to confirm the presumed decisiveness of visual cues. It also is useful shorthand for explaining the debate’s outcome — that Nixon lost because he was gaunt and sweated under the studio lights. 

The notion of viewer-listener disagreement endures, even though it was thoroughly dismantled 33 years ago in a scholarly journal article that pointed out the phenomenon is supported by almost no empirical data. The little survey data collected about the debate’s television and radio audiences were flawed, incomplete, and wholly inadequate to support such a sweeping theory. The authors, David Vancil and Sue Pendell, wrote in the Central States Speech Journal that “the inference that appearance caused Nixon’s loss or Kennedy’s victory is classic post hoc fallacy.”

Even if television viewers “disliked Nixon’s physical appearance,” they added, “the relative importance of this factor in viewers’ selection of a debate winner is a matter of conjecture.”

Vancil and Pendell’s research did not mention them, but news reports of the time offered no clear evidence that viewer-listener disagreement had rippled across the country during the debate. No news accounts referred to the phenomenon, which was identified months later in an unsourced passage in Theodore White’s best-selling book, “The Making of the President.”

Perhaps the closest contemporaneous hint of viewer-listener disagreement appeared in a post-debate column by Ralph McGill, publisher of the Atlanta Constitution. McGill described having had “a number of persons listen to the great debate on radio. It is interesting to report they unanimously thought Mr. Nixon had the better of it. They could not see him. They listened, without the diversion of looks and the consequent straying of the mind to that subject.”

Although intriguing, McGill’s experiment was more suggestive than illuminating. His column did not say how many people he recruited to listen to the debate, nor did it mention their party affiliations. 

McGill’s sample was not representative; it was not intended to be. It was instead an opportunity for a newspaper publisher to ruminate about television’s emergence as a force in U.S. presidential campaigns.

W. Joseph Campbell is a professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of seven books including, most recently, “Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections.” Follow him on Twitter @wjosephcampbell.