The 1960 Kennedy v. Nixon Election
Russell D. Renka
Southeast Missouri State University
March 1, 2010
° The Election Result
° The 1960 Primaries
° The General Election Campaign of 1960
The 1960 election was the closest presidential election held in the 20th century, including year 2000. The Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, emerged with a disputable national vote plurality over Republican candidate (and Vice-President) Richard M. Nixon by a razor’s edge of .17 percent in popular vote (49.72% to 49.55%) that converted into a 303 to 219 Electoral College victory (Leip, 1960 Presidential Election Results; United States presidential election, 1960). A postwar high of 63.1 percent of citizens aged 21 and over were participants by voting; they numbered more than 68.8 million out of 109 million-plus eligible citizens (Leip, 1960 Presidential Election - Voter Turnout). The county map demonstrates that the New Deal-derived voting division still held firm in 1960, with urban areas and most of the South going Democratic while the rural northeast, Appalachia mountain counties, farm mid-west, and sagebrush western counties all maintained their Republican voting habits (Leip's 1960 County Map: www.uselectionatlas.org/USPRESIDENT/GENERAL/pe1960USA2.png; also Presidential election of 1960 - Map by counties). Much of that was about to change, in 1964 and 1968 and beyond; but Kennedy-Nixon 1960 was pre-civil rights and pre-1960s electoral terrain derived essentially from the 1930s pattern of New Deal voting.
This election is historically remarkable for several reasons. It introduced to the world the next three presidents--Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon--and a host of others who became leading national figures in the next twenty years. Second, the 1960 election conferred success in a new fashion, rewarding the 42-year-old Senator from Massachusetts for the audacity to contest numerous state party primary elections in his search for delegates at the national nominating convention (1960 Presidential Election Primaries - John F. Kennedy Presidential Library). And third, it ushered in the age of political television, by placing Kennedy and Nixon alike in the television spotlight for ‘debate’ forums that chiefly tested each leader’s ability to define an attractive political agenda to the nation before its TV sets (Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debates, 1960; Commission on Presidential Debates, 1960 Debates).
I. The Election Result Top
This election in November was sufficiently close that Richard Nixon's advisors counseled him to challenge the results. Consider that 68,329,141 votes were cast for the two major party candidates, of which Kennedy won a popular vote plurality of just 112,827 (1960 Presidential Election Results). In percentage terms among all recorded votes (numbering 68,832,482), Kennedy got a 49.72% vote plurality of .17% over Nixon's 49.55%. A reversal of just 9 votes to Nixon from each 10,000 cast, would have erased the Kennedy edge and given Nixon a slight plurality. Voter turnout at 63.1 percent of citizens was the high point in all modern presidency elections to date. Additionally, no other election has elicited so high a level of popular interest and historical attention.
The closeness and intensity of the contest was evident in the month before the results. Theodore White and others noted record-setting crowds following appearances of both candidates (White 1961, 359-62). But they were different crowds: "out of doors the Nixon crowds were incomparably more subdued than the Kennedy crowds. Kennedy evoked an excitement, a response to personality. Nixon held his crowds earnestly together in a sober, intent frowning mass." Either way, they were precursor to the highest turnout of any election to date in the modern presidential era.
It came down, of course, to the Electoral College. This peculiar institution, a hangover from a founding that could not resolve either to have the legislature choose the executive in parliamentary fashion or have the people do it directly by popular vote, is not an independent agency. Instead, it almost always faithfully records a state in the column of whoever wins the popular plurality in that state. For instance, Kennedy won Hawaii by only 115 votes more than Nixon, but accordingly the Hawaii electors dutifully cast their 3 College votes for Kennedy. The narrow popular plurality for Kennedy thus turned into a positive majority in the Electoral College. Kennedy won 303 votes, Nixon 219.
The election was so close that enduring claims of theft were issued from Nixon's side (Greenburg 2000, Was Nixon Robbed - The legend of the stolen 1960 presidential election.). The claim centers on the huge 319,000 vote Kennedy plurality from Mayor Richard J. Daley's Cook County and Chicago, that being enough to bring the State of Illinois' 27 Electoral College votes to Kennedy by a mere 8858 popular votes out of more than 4,746,000 cast for the two (Dave Leip's Atlas - State Data - Illinois 1960). Vice-presidential Democratic nominee Lyndon B. Johnson's State of Texas, with 24 College votes, was also in question, as Kennedy beat Nixon there by 2.00 percentage points with extremely one-sided Democratic vote from the lower Rio Grande Valley counties including the notorious Duval County (Dave Leip's Atlas - State Data - Texas 1960). Had Nixon won both, then he had 270 to Kennedy's 252 and would have been elected. But proving that Texas shenanigans actually moved that many votes was far too difficult, especially in light of the constitutional imperative that the College officially meet in the states and certify their results within a month after the November 8 election. We would await 40 years and 10 more elections, to 2000, before directly confronting this inherent flaw of College procedure.
Since there were then 537 electors in 1960, 15 voted for something other than the Republican or the Democrat. One was a "faithless elector" from Oklahoma, where anti-Catholic sentiment helped Nixon win 59 percent of the vote. Nonetheless this elector spurned Nixon in favor of the segregationist state's rights Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia. Another 6 electors, from Alabama, took displeasure with Kennedy for publicly showing sympathy to southern civil rights leaders during the election campaign. Neither could they align with Nixon, his party still being a southern pariah for its affiliation with Abraham Lincoln one hundred years earlier. So they cast another 6 votes for Senator Byrd while 5 others dutifully voted for Kennedy, the popular vote winner in Alabama. Mississippi actually put "uncommitted" on the ballot. The almost purely white electorate accordingly gave that position a plurality, and Mississippi 's eight electors followed orders in voting for Byrd.
Southern faithless sorts notwithstanding, Kennedy's College victory is consistent with the behavior of the Electoral College. This institution still survives because it almost always picks the right winner, namely whoever has more national popular vote. It also helps that winner by inflating the victory margin far beyond the popular vote tally. The associated file Presidential Elections demonstrates both effects. In 20 presidential elections from 1928 through 2004, the winner was always the national popular vote leader except in 2000, and that winner averaged about 23 percentage points higher in the College result! Kennedy was probably its greatest beneficiary, since his election was the closest, and he also faced southern dissent. Informal word has circulated for years that Nixon had only to win Illinois to reverse his 1960 defeat. This, however, is not strictly true, as Nixon would have had to win at least two states. Illinois with Chicago's inestimable help did cast a narrow plurality for Kennedy. Had Nixon instead won Illinois' 27 Electoral College votes, then Kennedy's tally of 303 drops to 276 while Nixon's inflates from 219 to 246. Since Kennedy only needed a pure majority of 269 (one half of 537 total, rounded upward) to win outright, the election result would not have been reversed and the election would not have been deadlocked.
II. The 1960 Primaries Top
Today we are accustomed to presidential candidates of all stripes fighting it out for party nominations in the 40 to 45 state primaries held by each party in late winter and early spring of the election year. But this system is not historically old. Instead it only went into place after the 1968 Democratic National Convention destroyed the legitimacy of the older, pre-primary system. Kennedy and his strategists in 1960, however, did anticipate fundamental change in the way candidates could win the presidential nomination. Kennedy did not win the Democratic nomination outright, in advance of the convention, by taking a majority of convention delegates in the state primaries. Neither did he take the primary route in defiance of his party's leadership. Instead he used the primaries as a testing ground to prove his public appeal and organizational acumen to the major players in his party--Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, party leader John Bailey of Connecticut, and others.
That testing ground proved the Kennedy popularity with Democratic primary voters. The 1960 primary season ran from March 8 to June 7 with 16 of the 51 "states" (including D.C.) holding one. Kennedy faced serious contestants in most but won 10 of the 16, yielding most of the others to favorite-son home state candidates (Democratic Primaries - 1960; Presidential Elections Since 1789, pp. 38-39). He won by write-in for three states, and won seven with active competition. Kennedy performed well enough to vanquish the hopes of Minnesota's Senator Hubert Humphrey, a man whose senatorial credentials as a leader of liberal Northern Democrats were far superior to Kennedy's modest senatorial accomplishments. Kennedy first won over Humphrey in the latter's neighbor state of Wisconsin by 13 percentage points, and then downed him again in West Virginia by 60.8 to 39.2 percent (Democratic Primaries - 1960).
Kennedy was helped greatly by the decision of another Senator, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, not to even contest the primaries--of which only one was in a southern state. Johnson's conviction was that his towering status among Senate insiders alone made him the logical nominee of his party. But Kennedy knew better than most that the Senate's insulated political climate gave illusions to its leadership. By the time the convention arrived, Kennedy was judged by knowledgeable press observers as the favorite. His political team continued to work the uncommitted delegations' leaders right through the convention--unlike today's proceedings, where the convention endorses what is already decided by primary voting and "bound" delegates. He benefited from the Roosevelt-induced 1936 change in Democratic National Committee rules, to drop the 2/3 requirement for a candidate to win the nomination. That prevented southern delegations from vetoing the Kennedy nomination, and he won handily on the first ballot by 806 to 409 for Johnson before a very large televised audience (fisheye lens photograph of hall - American Memory from the Library of Congress - Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles, California, July, 1960; also Two Nominating Conventions).
III. The General Election Campaign of 1960 Top
The 1960 general election campaign observed the now-quaint tradition of officially starting on Labor Day weekend as August turned to September, approximately eight weeks prior to the general election on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Kennedy as a Democrat was by no means the expected winner. Richard Nixon had served two full terms as Vice-President, had easily swept all Republican primaries with a popular vote tally nearly three times that of Kennedy's primary vote, and was supported by a large majority of the nation's newspaper editorial pages. But Kennedy had two factors working in his favor.
One of those was the New Deal. The Roosevelt-originated political coalition remained largely in place in 1960, before civil rights became a full-blown national issue, and before a huge new postwar generation began replacing voters who began adulthood in depression and war years. By the 1950s an objective measure of political party affiliation existed in figures derived from the American National Election Studies (NES) surveys conducted from the University of Michigan (tables listed at Index to the NES Guide). These measures include party identification (Party Identification 3-Point Scale). Democrats were the larger national party in 1960; for every 37 persons who considered themselves Republicans, 51 considered themselves Democrats. Democrats also had a considerably better public image in 1960 than Republicans (per Average Feelings Toward Parties), an advantage not fully offset by greater confidence in the Republicans to avoid war (Which Party Better Able to Keep U.S. Out of War). Democrats were then as now from lower average stations on measures of education, income and occupation, and were slightly less likely to register and to vote (Voter Registration). The Republican presidential candidate in 1960 also benefited from the favorable economic outlook of citizens anticipating 1960 as another year in a long sequence of prosperous postwar years (Respondent's Financial Situation Over the Next Year). But those were insufficient to offset the basic Democratic Party advantage in the electorate. Democrats held a huge majority of seats in the Senate and the House, those resulting from a 1958 midterm election landslide. The 1960 NES sample favored Democratic over Republican candidates for Congress by 56 percent to 44 percent (Congressional Vote 2 Major Parties).
In short, Kennedy as the Democrat benefited from his party's size advantage in the electorate. It is not true that he had a personal advantage over Nixon as a candidate, nor did Republican Richard Nixon have a poor personal reputation in 1960. In fact, the NES measure of feelings toward the two candidates produced an exceptionally high opinion of Nixon, one exceeded only by Eisenhower since 1948 and not approached by most candidates since 1960 (see Average Feelings Toward Presidential Candidates). Nixon benefited from the Eisenhower image, notwithstanding the outgoing President's lukewarm pronouncements on the Nixon candidacy until its latest stage (White 1961).
But Kennedy did have a second major advantage: he was far better than Richard Nixon on television. Both were postwar rising politicians who entered Congress after war service in the 1946 election, and both were attuned to the uses of television for speeches and appearances. But Kennedy in 1960 was visually far more attractive than the angular and dark Nixon. This was exactly the time when television assumed near-universal status as a medium for the public to observe campaigns for president. Theodore White cites U.S. Census information on household television possession jumping from only 11 percent in 1950 to a near-universal 88 percent a mere decade later (White 1961, 306-07; also Television History - The First 75 Years or 1950-1959). The NES surveys show that 87 percent watched the campaign on TV in 1960, up from 74 percent in 1956 and only 51 percent in 1952 (Watched Campaign on TV). By contrast, 80 percent read about the campaign in newspapers, the traditionally dominant medium for conveying political information (Read about Campaign in Newspapers); and only 42 percent listened to campaign radio programs (Listened to Campaign Radio Programs). One may judge this personally by taking in a website that employs a print transcript and an audio link without the video part by clicking on "Play Clip" at the Kennedy Library's First Kennedy-Nixon Debate to hear but not see the two men (First Televised Presidential Debate). The same can be done with the following three debates, all accessed from the Library's Speeches of John F. Kennedy.
Theodore White chronicles one difference television images made in favor of the Senator: "the contrast of the two faces was astounding. ... Probably no picture in American politics tells a better story of crisis and episode than that famous shot of the camera on the Vice-President as he half slouched, his "Lazy Shave" powder faintly streaked with sweat, his eyes exaggerated hollows of blackness, his jaw, jowls, and face drooping with strain (White 1961, 316)."
Even Nixon grudgingly conceded the Senator's important first debate performance. Of Kennedy's famous opening statement, Nixon said "I had heard a very shrewd, carefully calculated appeal, with subtle emotional overtones, that would have a great impact upon a television audience (Nixon 1962, 364)." After the full hour, "I felt that Kennedy had done extremely well. He had been on the offensive throughout, just as I had expected him to be. I thought that as far as the arguments were concerned, point by point, I might have had a little the better of it. But ... I knew that appearance may at times count more than substance ... (1962, 366)." Indeed it did so, for Kennedy. Any comparing of the respective Kennedy and Nixon television appearances will not miss the stark difference of the two. Thus Nixon in further hindsight: "I should have remembered that 'a picture is worth a thousand words'." (Nixon 1962, 367)
It was worth far more than a
thousand. A 1999 interview by Jim Lehrer of Republican
leader Robert Dole produced this recollection: "The one
disadvantage would be if somebody is clearly better suited for television than
somebody else, and you get back to Nixon and Kennedy debates. And I remember
listening to that debate. I was campaigning I think I was staying at the Post
Rock Motel in Lincoln, Kansas, and I was listening to it on the radio coming
into Lincoln, Kansas, and I thought Nixon was doing a great job. Then I saw the
TV clips the next morning and he was sick. He didn't look well. Kennedy was
young and articulate, and sort of wiped him out."
(Debating Our Destiny: Sen. Bob Dole)
Still photographs of September 26 show as much:
Nixon 1- ; Nixon 2 - ; Nixon 3 -
Kennedy 1 - ; Add Kennedy and Nixon together: ; and check this Thumbnail Movie Archive. Case closed for Kennedy on appearance alone.
The Nixon - Kennedy Debates Video Page - Streaming RealVideo of the four Nixon - Kennedy presidential debates also demonstrates the stark visual contrast of not only the first but of all four debates. Although Nixon recovered considerably in appearance from his haggard first-debate appearance, with its ill-fitted suit and transparent facial hair, he never compared in looks to Kennedy. Kennedy 1960 advertising took advantage of this contrast by portraying Nixon's haggard look of September 26 alongside repeats of the notorious Eisenhower dismissal "If you give me a week, I might think of one." (third entry under Kennedy advertisement thumbnails in The Living Room Candidate - Commercials - 1960 - Debate 2).
Kennedy had the perfect circumstance for making the most of his visual advantage over Nixon on television. The fall 1960 presidential debates drew a television audience of unprecedented size, about 70 million for the first debate (The 1960 Presidential Campaign Debates at the Kennedy Library). This prompted New York Times campaign reporter Russell Baker, who heard but did not watch the first debate while on duty, to recall and write: "That night television replaced newspapers as the most important communications medium in American politics" (Baker 1989, 326). This was already happening gradually in the 1950s, as Senator Joseph McCarthy's 1950-54 rise to power and his 1954 demise both demonstrated this emergent source of power as television audiences grew steadily greater. But the 1960 success of Kennedy on televised debate brought full recognition of television's central place in our political campaigns.
There is a near-universal held belief that the First Debate's radio audience rated Nixon better, whereas the television audience gave Kennedy the nod. There was one survey done at the time ("Debate Score" 1960); but that survey was so deeply flawed that it lacks serious standing now with scholars (Druckman 2003, 563). The radio audience in an era of prevalent television was largely self-selected among more rural participants who were predisposed to support Nixon more than the voting-age population as a whole did. There was no controlled experiment with randomly selected radio listeners being compared to television viewers. Thus the only current evidence of radio v. television on this event comes from Druckman's properly controlled experiment using university students more than a generation later. That study confirms that television viewers indeed gave more weight to candidate image than did radio listeners. What's more, "television viewers were significantly more likely to think Kennedy won the debate than audio listeners" (Druckman 2003, 568).
It was not appearances alone that spelled defeat for Nixon. There was also a strategic mistake in his selection of topics to emphasize. Political scientists have long noted that economic performance of the incumbent Administration deeply influences subsequent election results. The 1960 situation was novel with Vice-President Nixon a de facto incumbent candidate succeeding and defending the performance of Eisenhower. Vavreck (2009) demonstrates that Richard Nixon did not sufficiently clarify why the good economic times owed to Eisenhower Administration performance and would continue only if Nixon rather than Kennedy were elected in 1960. The "insurgent" Kennedy was very effective in labeling 1960 as less than it should have been; and Nixon did not "clarify" why this was false.
I think the major reason Nixon failed to do so was his own orientation as a Cold Warrior. He and Kennedy shared this orientation, as both demonstrated once in the highest office. When Kennedy addressed another supposed Eisenhower shortcoming known to history as the "missile gap," Nixon expended considerable scarce time and attention to that allegation. In hindsight, Nixon groused that Eisenhower's economic decisions undercut him; but Vavreck assigns chief blame to his own choices of what issues to emphasize.
So Kennedy and Nixon were both television politicians, but in 1960 Kennedy was the better one. He was also a better campaign strategist, at least in 1960. Once in office President Kennedy used several different rhetorical settings with skill, and all were based upon the emergent centrality of image-boosting television in American politics. Television itself became more and more important, too. Kernell profiles a 'Kennedy system' of information management based upon the first-time-ever live televising of press conferences (Kernell 1993, 71-79). That change made news or press conferences far more expensive than before, so they became far less commonplace. Both Roosevelt and Kennedy excelled in this medium of communication, but live televising deeply changed these events. Compared to the 998 Roosevelt press conferences held twice a week over 145 months, President Kennedy would hold only 64 in his 34 months (President Kennedy's Press Conferences Menu Page with sound files for Conference 10 and Conference 30). They also became new occasions for major presidential statements to the nation, per the President's memorable tongue-lashing of the steel industry on 11 April 1962 (President Kennedy's News Conference of April 11, 1962 - audio excerpt from Presidential Audio-Video Archive - John F. Kennedy).
Televised news expanded rather than shrank. In 1960 the big three national television networks devoted only 15 minutes to evening news broadcasts, but by 1963 this was doubled to 30 minutes. The chief Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorenson was accustomed to his superior’s reliance upon television presentations. Kennedy reinforced Eisenhower's expansion of the White House press secretary and press office despite the new President’s noted lack of reliance upon formal staff meetings or cleanly defined specializations of White House staff (Walcott and Hult 1995, 58-59). And he devoted a great deal of his personal time and emphasis to rhetoric and press relations. President Kennedy governed the same way he had won a crucial election advantage over Nixon, via television.
Books and Articles:
American National Election Studies (NES), The NES Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior. URL: Index to the NES Guide at www.electionstudies.org/nesguide/gd-index.htm#2. Accessed 20 February 2001.
Baker, Russell. 1989. The Good Times. New York: William Morrow.
"Debate Score." 1960. Broadcasting 59 (19), November 7: 27-29.
Druckman, James N. 2003. The Power of Television Images: The First Kennedy-Nixon Debate Revisited. The Journal of Politics 65:2 (May), pp. 559-571.
Greenburg, David. 2000. Was Nixon Robbed - The legend of the stolen 1960 presidential election. URL: slate.msn.com/id/91350/.
Hersh, Seymour M. 1997. The Dark Side of Camelot. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Kernell, Samuel. 1997. Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership, 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press.
Nixon, Richard M. 1962. Six Crises. New York: Pyramid.
Vavreck, Lynn. 2009. The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Walcott, Charles E. and Karen M. Hult. 1995. Governing the White House: From Hoover through LBJ. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
White, Theodore H. 1961. The Making of the President, 1960. New York: Atheneum.
Debating Our Destiny: Sen. Bob Dole, interviewed November 10, 1999 by Jim Lehrer, PBS; URL: www.pbs.org/newshour/debatingourdestiny/interviews/dole.html#nixon.
Democratic Primaries of 1960; URL: www.jfkin61.com/presidency/democratic_primaries.html.
Democratic Convention of 1960; URL: www.jfkin61.com/presidency/convention.html.
First Kennedy-Nixon Debate, Kennedy Library; URL: www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/Archives/Reference+Desk/Speeches/JFK/JFK+Pre-Pres/Senator+John+F.+Kennedy+and+Vice+President+Richard+M.+Nixon+First+Joint+Radio-Television+Broadcast.htm
Nixon - Kennedy Debates Video Page - Streaming RealVideo of the four Nixon - Kennedy presidential debates; URL: www.earthstation1.com/Nixon_Kennedy_Debates.html.
Press Conferences of President Kennedy, Kennedy Library; URL: www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/Archives/Reference+Desk/Press+Conferences/default.htm .
Selected Speeches of President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Kennedy Library; URL: www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/Archives/Reference+Desk/Selected+Speeches+of+JFK+RFK+and+EMK.htm
Television History - The First 75 Years at URL: www.tvhistory.tv/facts-stats.htm.
The 1960 Presidential Campaign Debates from Kennedy Library; URL: www.jfklibrary.org/debates-1960.html.
U.S. Presidential Elections through 2008; URL: cstl-cla.semo.edu/renka/ui320-75/elections.asp.
 Dave Leip's Atlas has 1960 Hawaii general election results. The official Electoral College reports are from the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. The National Archives site has NARA Federal Register - U.S. Electoral College with How Electors Vote in each state. For Kennedy-Nixon, see 1960.
 Greenburg (2000) shows that the theft claim is illustrative of Nixonian methods of portraying himself as the lone holdout for the moral good amidst failings of many or most who surround him with counsel to do the political expedient rather than the truly right thing. In any event, Nixon correctly recognized that even corroboration of the claim would not be sufficient to elect him, so he took on the robes of the wounded statesman in preparation for his political future (Was Nixon Robbed - The legend of the stolen 1960 presidential election. By David Greenberg, posted 16 Oct. 2000).
 Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh writes in The Dark Side of Camelot that Kennedy had a Corpus Christi financier named Oscar Wyatt on hand and ready to fly to Mississippi to literally buy the loyalties of 8 unpledged Mississippi delegates in case Illinois did not come through for Kennedy. That arithmetic means that if Kennedy lost both Illinois and other close states, Kennedy might have reached the 269-vote majority with these 8 votes. Wyatt waited overnight in a Corpus Airport but ultimately learned of Illinois going to Kennedy, and he never made this trip (Hersh 1997, 152-53).
Despite their powerful effect in 1960, televised presidential debates were not
to become institutionalized or permanent for 16 more years after 1960.
Johnson v. Goldwater in 1964, Nixon v. Humphrey (and Wallace) in 1968, and Nixon
v. McGovern in 1972 did not have debates; they awaited Gerald Ford v. Jimmy
Carter in 1976 for resumption and Carter v. Ronald Reagan in 1980 for
institutional anchoring as regular parts of presidential campaigns
on Presidential Debates - Debate History;
Debate & Beyond: The History of Televised Presidential Debates).
An institutionalized practice in the presidency or a presidential campaign requires both 1) a strong sense of precedents to effect of it being normal and expected by the voting audience, and 2) a judgment from the strategic minded principals that the institution probably will work to their respective advantages. The first condition didn't exist in 1960, of course, but both candidates had strong incentives to accept the idea. Nixon saw himself as an outstanding debater and author of the 1952 Checkers speech that saved his place on the Eisenhower ticket (Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech [September 23, 1952]). Senator Kennedy started out behind in the campaign, and also correctly understood the emergent political effect of television (see Kennedy 1959, Television: A Force That Has Changed The Political Scene). Neither condition prevailed in 1964, where the incumbent Johnson had a very large polled lead over Goldwater. Likewise in 1972, incumbent Nixon had a wide lead over McGovern and thus no incentive to grant free time as an equal to the Democrat. That leaves 1968, an extraordinarily volatile year where contender Nixon had a substantial early lead over eventual Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey and third party challenger George Wallace; so Nixon went against his normal instincts for combat and foreswore debating. In 1976 when incumbent Gerald Ford granted the opportunity to challenger Jimmy Carter, Ford was well behind in the polls and thus had ample incentive to use these occasions to gain support. After Carter and Reagan debated in 1980, debates became a firm expectation that neither nominee would again be able to dodge. See Debating Our Destiny from PBS with references to specific years; and The Great Debate & Beyond: The History of Televised Presidential Debates (Real Media link to 1964, 1968, & 1972: The Absence of Presidential Debates).
Copyright@2001-2010, Russell D. Renka
March 03, 2010 10:33 AM