Presidential Debate Mythology: Kennedy v Nixon to Biden v Trump

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Well, last week was the first US presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump and it was really, really hard to watch. I expected nothing and I was somehow still deeply disappointed. I honestly wasn’t even sure what the point of the debate was, since we already know everything about both of these candidates’ views. I have trouble even imagining the voter out there who is undecided on whether they should vote for Trump or Biden. I’m fairly sure that the only type of voter who is “undecided” is just depressed progressives who aren’t sure whether they’re going to bother voting at all.

Well, I was wrong. This debate was so bad, so loathsome, and so obviously won by Donald Trump that I honestly think he may have won over some voters. It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Joe Biden and that I am planning to vote for him while holding my nose in the hope of, you know, preserving American democracy, but the debate made it clear that he is so much worse than even I thought.

If you skipped it–and I hope you did, for your own mental health–Biden appeared to be moments from death, spoke in a weak whisper, got confused in the middle of answers and just trailed off, and for the most part failed to hold Donald Trump accountable. His camp said he had a cold, but he looked like he was cold from having literally just been in a mortuary.

Trump, meanwhile, just stood there and lied. Just lied and lied and lied and lied. The “moderators” didn’t moderate and Biden only occasionally corrected the lies, despite the fact that anyone who has seen Donald Trump speak in the past year knows exactly what he would lie about, and prepping zippy one-liner responses should have been job one for Biden.

For instance, about the coup he attempted, Trump claimed that he offered Nancy Pelosi the help of the National Guard, something he keeps saying despite the fact that it is so obviously not true because Pelosi wouldn’t have even had the authority to turn down the National Guard.

But more importantly, on the topic of abortion, Trump claimed that Democrats are literally aborting babies after they’re born. For the record, that wouldn’t be an abortion. That would just be called “murder” and it remains illegal throughout the country.

He also claimed that the majority of the country wanted Roe v Wade overturned, which is the exact opposite of the truth. Roe v. Wade was and is wildly popular, to the point that a lot of experts are predicting that women will turn out in November to vote against Trump for exactly that reason.

It is unbelievably frustrating to fight SO HARD for reproductive freedom only for a handful of conservative judges wipe it away, and then to have this narcissistic blowhard stand there and tell the most ridiculous, egregious lies about it all while the only guy I can vote for stands there looking like Lisa Simpson staring at her dinner plate.

Let me be very clear: if Trump wins he will be a disaster for women, for minorities, and for democracy itself. He is a fascist authoritarian nightmare and I would vote for a crate of apples if that’s who the Democrats put up for election. Regardless of what happens between now and November, I’m going to vote for a Democrat.

My concern is whether or not Trump’s confident lying, especially placed next to Biden looking like death warmed over, is actually going to sway undecided voters. How much emphasis do people actually place on looks rather than issues?

It’s helpful to go back to the first televised presidential debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. When I was in college studying media, that debate was held up as proof of the power of a good image. Here’s the story I was told: in 1960, Nixon was a well known Vice President and JFK was a young, inexperienced, unserious upstart who wasn’t expected to do well. But for the first debate, his team focused on his image. He wore makeup, and a dark suit that would contrast with the grey background. Nixon didn’t think much about the visuals, refusing makeup and wearing a grey suit that blended into the background. Nixon looked old and sweaty and sickly while Kennedy looked young and bronzed and sickly, and thus that debate ruined Nixon and sealed the win for Kennedy.

So there you have it: visuals matter more than policy. We’re screwed in November.

Except, the story I was taught as fact by my public relations professor isn’t quite that simple. In the book Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American, W. Joseph Campbell argues that we’ve collectively misremembered what actually happened in 1960. He points out that editorials at the time didn’t focus on the candidates’ looks, and some of them thought Nixon was pretty smooth and that he may have even got the upper hand in the debate. Overall, the articles in the days following the debate indicate it was pretty much a draw.

JFK won the election by an extremely tight margin, and Campbell suggests that any number of factors could have nudged him over the line. There’s no actual evidence that the first debate mattered at all.

So never mind! Visuals don’t matter! It’s all policy. We’re going to be okay in November.

Except…there IS at least one empirical study. In November of 1960, a market research firm conducted a poll in which they asked voters who they thought had won that first debate. They found that people who watched it on TV were more likely to say Kennedy won, while people who listened to it on the radio thought Nixon had won.

Boom, there we go: empirical evidence that looks matter and we’re all going to die in November.

Except! That survey had some issues. It was self-reported, it was conducted a month after the debate, we don’t know the sample size to judge statistical significance, and it didn’t control for things like party affiliation. As Steven H. Chaffee at UC Santa Barbara wrote, “By 1960, those

who could listen to debates only on radio were far from a random lot. Situated for the most part in remote rural areas, they were overwhelmingly Protestants, and skeptical of Kennedy as a Roman Catholic candidate.” 

Thank god, we’re back to policy (um, and religion) over looks. We’re saved!

Okay, I swear this is my final “except.” I found that Chaffee quote in this study by James N. Druckman, published in The Journal of Politics in 2003. Druckman was frustrated by the lack of evidence backing up this possible myth of the first Kennedy Nixon debate, so he set out to put this to bed once and for all. He found 171 college students who were unfamiliar with the debate and its mythos. He split them into two groups, have one group listen to the audio of the debate and the other group watch the televised debate. He then gave them a questionnaire, which included a 7-point ranking on who won the debate. 

Sure enough, the TV viewers were significantly more likely to think that Kennedy won the debate, and they were also more likely to judge the candidates by their perceived personalities rather than their stance on the issues.

It’s not gold standard proof that JFK won thanks to that televised debate, but it is evidence in favor of the idea that the medium really does matter.

So is that it? Are we cooked? Well, here’s how Druckman concludes his paper:

“Some might take my results as an indictment of television. Yet, in some contexts, imagery may serve as useful information that enhances the quality of evaluations. As Schudson (1995, 117–18) asks, “Is television imagery so obviously superficial? Was it not important, and truthful, to see that Kennedy, despite his relative youth, was able to handle the most public moment of his life with assurance? Was it not important, and truthful, to see Nixon, despite his vast experience, looking awkward and insecure?” The point is that assessing the competence of political judgments is quite complicated. One not only needs to offer a clear normative model but, in this case, must also consider the relationship between issues and image and the information contained in each.”

It is true that TV gives us more information to work with, and it’s worth adding that Drucker’s study also showed that TV viewers were better able to remember what happened during the debate compared to audio listeners. 

We DID get a lot more information from that debate, and as much as I hate what I learned, maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe the Democrats will finally accept that there’s a problem here and address it head on. Maybe they’ll force Biden to step down and run that crate of apples instead.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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