Television's Role in the Kennedy-Nixon Elections
On the 26th of September 1960, 70 million U.S. viewers tuned in to watch Senator John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential debate. There were four Kennedy-Nixon debates, and this was the first of those four. This first debate concentrated on domestic issues. Eleven days later, on the 7th of October, the second debate was held. This one focused on Americas involvement in two small islands off the coast of China. This argument was continued in their next debate, on the 13th of October. In their last debate, on the 21st of October, the candidates focused on American relations with Cuba. "The Great Debates" as they are called, marked television's grand entrance into politics. Televised politics gave voters the opportunity to see their candidates in action, and the difference it made was spectacular. In August of that year Nixon had seriously injured his knee and was required to spend two weeks in the hospital. When it was time for the first debate Nixon was in terrible condition; he was still twenty pounds underweight and was still very pale. He arrived at the debate in a suit that didn't fit him and refused to put make-up on to improve his color. Kennedy was the opposite; he had spent part of September campaigning in California. This made it so that when got to the debates he was tan, not only this but he was confident and well-rested. Later that month Nixon wrote "I had never seen him looking so fit". A few weeks later, on the 8th of November, Kennedy became president.
The Story Behind Kennedy's Victory
On the 8th of November 1960 John F. Kennedy won the presidential elections. That day 68,329,141 people voted for who they wanted to be the next president. 34,220,984 of those people voted for Kennedy, while 34,108,157 people voted for Nixon. This means Kennedy won the popular vote by 112827 votes. This is one of the closest popular votes ever in presidential election history. Those who listened to the first presidential debate on the radio didn't see how poor of a condition Nixon was and how uncomfortable he was around the smooth, fit Kennedy. This made a huge difference for the 70 million people that were watching the debate on their television. They focused on what they saw that day, not what they heard. A study taken that year showed that those who listened to the debate thought Nixon came out as the winner and that Kennedy was the winner by a huge margin for those who watched the debate on their television. When election day came more than half of the voters said that the first debate influenced their vote that day. Furthermore 6% of the voters reported that the first debate had made them change their vote from Nixon to Kennedy. This means that if the first debate hadn't been televised Nixon would have won with a popular vote of approximately 39,811,654 votes compared to Kennedy's 28,517,487.
It has been said before by many historians and experts in politics that television has had one of the greatest impacts on public opinion, especially politics, that this world has ever seen. It is clear that if politics' introduction to television hadn't taken place that year, then Kennedy wouldn't have become president that year. It is said that the impact television had on those elections sped up the spread of democracy around the world. In addition to this, a known fact is that after these televised debates many other countries like Germany, Sweden, Finland, Italy, and Japan established a system of presidential debates as well. I guess the question is, if those debates weren't televised, and Nixon had won, would America be a different country?
The First Debate
Don Hewitt, the CBS news legend, talks about the first Kennedy-Nixon debate