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Media Lessons From the Kennedy/Nixon Debate
Do presidential debates even matter?
How much debates impact how people vote is a popular topic of debate among political scientists. The consensus is primary debates matter more, but debates between presidential nominees typically only have a small effect on the election outcome.
But in a close race, that small effect can make all the difference.
Case in point: It’s widely believed that the first-ever televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was a deciding factor in JFK winning the White House in November 1960.
The reason why is a crash course in media training.
Kennedy and Nixon Square Off
More than 70 million viewers tuned in to watch the debate. At the time, it was the most-watched political event in history.
Better Preparation, Better Presentation
The day before the debate, producers invited both candidates to a pre-show meeting. Kennedy accepted, Nixon declined. At that meeting, Kennedy’s team saw the studio and discussed camera angles. Kennedy spent the remainder of the day preparing for the debate and resting.
Nixon, on the other hand, was campaigning until just hours before the debate. He was recovering from a knee injury and running a low-grade fever.
To families watching at home, Kennedy looked vibrant and confident. He wore a blue suit that contrasted well with the grey studio background. He looked into the camera and seemed to be directly addressing the American people.
Nixon looked tired and shifty. His grey suit blended into the background, and he was sweating under the studio lights. He often looked away from the camera to address reporters in the audience and shifted his weight because of his knee. To audiences at home, this made him look evasive and dishonest.
After watching the debate, Nixon’s mother called him to ask if he was ill.
By all accounts, Nixon was an accomplished public speaker and debater. Yet his lack of preparation and poor presentation may well have cost him the election. The debates made up the minds of 4 million voters – 3 million of them voted for Kennedy.
Kennedy Won the Debate Thanks to Media Training
At the time, television was a new frontier on the campaign trail. Today, candidates must navigate new mediums like social media and virtual events and find ways to resonate with their audiences before November 3.