Nixon v. JFK and the Rise of Optics in Campaigning 

By Sean Hathaway, Vice President

With Massachusetts’ Presidential Primary Day upon us, members of IMG staff weighed in on moments and storylines from past & upcoming elections. This is part of a series of take-aways from the point-of-view of our expert communicators.

Although I am too young to have lived through the 1960 presidential election, the first debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon held on September 26, 1960 was an event that I studied in college and has stuck with me since. The debate is best known for being the first televised face-off between presidential candidates and how the emerging medium boosted one candidate at the expense of the other.  

Nixon, the then-current vice president, entered the debate with a six-point lead over Senator Kennedy, but the performance during the live broadcast would prove costly to his presidential hopes. 

The most glaring development of the rise of television was a newfound focus on the candidates’ looks and behavior. For the first time, Americans were able to watch these individuals interact in a live setting, rather than a staged address, audio-only radio broadcast, or through quotes in a printed outlet. 

The youthful Kennedy had a tv-ready appearance and spoke with poise. Nixon, meanwhile, came into the debate fatigued from aggressive campaigning and some minor health issues. His decision to forgo makeup (unlike Kennedy) contributed to a less-than-stellar visage that was made worse by sweat dripping down his face. He also elected to don a light suit, which blended into the background of the black-and-white broadcast. Due to unfamiliarity with TV optics, Nixon’s performance also suffered from some distracting behaviors, like repeatedly licking his lips and glancing over at the clock.  

Those who tuned into the radio broadcast believed Nixon won, while those who watched on TV gave the nod to Kennedy. Unfortunately for the Republican candidate, the televised debate was viewed by a very large audience of 70 million. Polling, which had been in Nixon’s favor, immediately moved to Kennedy’s advantage, eventually leading to a narrow victory in the election several weeks later.  

While this debate occurred more than 60 years ago, the lessons it offers on navigating the particulars of one medium versus another hold true. The stark contrast on who won between the televised and radio audiences demonstrated just how critical appearance and body language can be in shaping our opinions. Notice how none of Nixon’s faults would’ve been picked up by the radio audience, but it serves as a reminder that what flies in one setting can be damaging in another.  

Although I loathe to focus on style over substance, this moment changed the game with respect to the expectations of a presidential campaign. From then on, candidates have been judged not only on what was being said, but how they said it, and how they looked saying it.  

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