history vs. memory, round [some large number written in Roman numerals]

A while back in comments elsewhere, I wondered about a story I’ve heard about the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates. Supposedly, Nixon did better among radio listeners and Kennedy did better among television viewers. But there’s a problem with that account: there were actually four debates. Do the stories refer to just the first one? (I suspect yes.) Or does this refer to some kind of overall response to the debates?

And then there’s an even bigger question: while no doubt there were individual radio-listeners who favored Nixon and tv-watchers who favored Kennedy, is the aggregate story even true?

The answer appears to be “no“:

The first Kennedy-Nixon debate in the 1960 presidential campaign has lived on in memory as a turning point not so much because of what the candidates said but rather because of how they looked. Kennedy looked like … well, Kennedy, and Nixon looked like an especially unflattering caricature of himself. Everyone “knows” that Nixon’s unattractive appearance led him to be perceived as the loser of the debate. However, the evidence that supports that conclusion turns out upon inspection, to be somewhere in the range of weak to nonexistent. Until Druckman’s study, the only reasonably credible evidence came from a post-debate survey that indicated that those who had listened to the debate on the radio were more likely to think Nixon had won, but those who watched it on television were more likely to see Kennedy as the winner. That’s a nifty result, if valid, but Druckman questions its validity for a host of methodological reasons that I won’t go into here except to say that they’re pretty compelling.

Or is the answer “yes”?

As a strictly historical matter it does not look like it can be settled. The only documentation is that survey, but the survey is apparently too flawed to be relied upon. But as a political science matter…well, just click through. I have my doubts that a group of “mostly undergraduate students” shown the debate decades later, outside of the context of the campaign, and after the Nixon and Kennedy legacies have become part of the world they grew up in, can settle anything about the contemporaneous response to the debate. There is evidence, however, that viewing vs. listening can make a real difference among audiences today.

(I’d link to the Druckman study, but it’s paywalled and I don’t have access and haven’t been able to read it for myself.)

Update: You can find the study, which I still haven’t yet read, in pdf form here.


  1. agreeing with a candidate on the issues significantly affected the audio-only participants’ assessments of the candidates, but the same didn’t hold true for those who had had the video as wel as the audio input

    This, if it reflects the situation when the debates were originally broadcast (which as you point out is probably impossible to determine), would neatly account for my grandparents’ reaction that I mentioned in the EotAW thread.

  2. I would guess that on the radio, where there are fewer “moments” that can stand out in one’s mind – no sighs or shrugs or whatever – statements of positions must loom larger in a listener’s evaluation of the debate.

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