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Historical Investigation on 1960 Election Essay

To what extent did televised debates affect the outcome of the presidential campaign during 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon?

Frank Guo
IB Candidate
Word Count: 1,850

Part A: Plan of Investigation
This investigation evaluates the extent to which the televised debates affected the outcome of the campaign in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. In order to evaluate the impact of the televised debates, this investigation will focus on the general public evaluations of candidates both prior, during, and after the Great Debates of 1960. The evaluation before the debates will be used to compare to the evaluation after the debates in order to determine the impact that great debates had on the 1960 Presidential Election.

The two sources selected for evaluation, The First Modern Campaign Kennedy, Nixon, and the Election of 1960 by Gary A. Donaldson and The Power of Television Debate: The First Kennedy-Nixon Debate Revisited by James N Druckman. Both of these sources will be evaluated for their origins, purposes, limitations, and values.

PART B: Summary of Evidence

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born into a wealthy Catholic family in Massachusetts. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had been a prominent American investor, business man, and government official. Kennedy made numerous recognizable works during his years in Harvard Law School that later helped him in becoming the Senator of Massachusetts in 1955. Additionally, he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and played football while in college. He married Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953 and later had two children. When he was running for president in 1960 as the Democratic nominee, he was recognized by the public as an athlete, intellectual, war hero, family man, and passionate liberal. At 43, Kennedy was the youngest and only Catholic candidate to ever run for President. He relied on a liberal motto of “moving again” and used an estimate of $1.5-$2.5 million on his campaigns.

Meanwhile, being born into a poor household, Richard Nixon had an excellent record at Whittier College and Duke University Law School. After serving as a Navy Lieutenant commander in 1940 he was elected to congress in 1950. Nixon eventually became the Vice President of the United States under Dwight Eisenhower from 1953-1961, and by then he had been in the public eyes for 8 years. Like many Americans, Nixon thought John F. Kennedy was inexperienced, and he felt confident that he can use his prior TV experiences and debating skills against Kennedy and “sucker punch” him out of the campaign. Nixon also had a lot of support outside his own party. A poll suggested that Nixon could get about 90 percent support from his own party, 20 percent from Democrats, and over 50 percent on independents. Using his popularity that he gained during his many trips around American under President Eisenhower’s orders, he easily became the Republican nominee especially after his toughest rival; Nelson Rockefeller, had declined to run for president.

During the first debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, 70 million viewers tuned into CBS to watch the first ever televised debate. Kennedy had a whole team of helpers and looked like a “movie star” with his tanned skin and black suit. Meanwhile, Nixon prepped alone and had recently just recovered from a knee injury, he was wearing grey suit which matched the background of the set. His face was swollen and yet he declined make-up because he thought it wouldn’t be good for his public image to wear make-up while Kennedy wasn’t. The result of his appearance was horrible, “Nixon look like death, while Kennedy was bronzed beautifully,” said the president of CBS, Frank Stanton.

In the second debate however, Nixon came back well prepared, he spoke well against Kennedy, and debate was seen as a draw between the two candidates. On the third debate, Nixon attacked Kennedy on being too soft against communism. He spoke confidently and directly to the Americans who were listening and watching the debates, he was seen as the clear winner. Finally, the fourth debate was marked as a victory for Kennedy, who stimulated his audience with his “getting America to move again” motto.

During the presidential election, John F. Kennedy won majority votes in most Eastern States, while Nixon gained most of his votes in the Western States. Kennedy won by .16% popular votes with 34,220,984 to Nixon’s 34,108,157 popular votes; total difference of 112,827 votes. On the other hand, in Electoral Votes, Kennedy leads with 303 votes to Nixon’s 219 votes. After Kennedy won election, the country seemed to be split in half; with half the country favoring Nixon and the other favoring Kennedy. Part C: Evaluation of Sources

Donaldson A. Gary. The First Modern Campaign Kennedy, Nixon and the Election of 1960. USA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2007. Donaldson’s book tells a recount of events that happened in 1960 which established John F. Kennedy’s presidential victory in 1960. The purpose of this book is to teach people who are studying on the televised debates that the election of 1960 created a new form of political campaign that is critical to the understanding of American politics today.

This source is valuable because it presents a controversial argument that the 1960 debates created a new form of political campaign where candidates focused more on getting media attention than developing the nation. However a limitation to this source, Donaldson wrote this book decades after the election of John F. Kennedy, and since Kennedy today is mostly seen as admirable idol, Donaldson’s portrayal of Kennedy in this book can be seen as biased and favoring Kennedy more over Nixon.

Druckman, N. James. The Power of Television Images: The First Kennedy-Nixon Debate Revisited. The Journal of Politics Vol. 65 No. 2 (2003) pp. 559-77. England: Cambridge University Press.  Druckman’s journal talks about how the televised images of 1960 might have affected the outcome of the presidential campaign between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. This journal was written to show students of political science the power of media imagery has on evaluations of people.

A valuable aspect to this source is that the author approaches his argument through a political science lens, he supported his argument through a collection of data that he got from his experiments. However, there is one flaw to Druckman’s experiment, which is addressed by the author himself, is that John F. Kennedy has made a major impact on modern people’s lives and his name is used in many government buildings, such as JFK Airport, and JFK Library, and. Therefore, there was a great chance that the sample group recognized Kennedy and favored him over Nixon due to his popularity.

Part D: Analysis

In the end, John F. Kennedy used television to present himself as a stronger leader than Richard Nixon. For instance, during the first of the four televised debates, Don Hewitt CBS producer of the Great Debates noted that when Kennedy made his entrance, photographers immediately deserted Richard Nixon and grouped around Kennedy. This is critical because John F. Kennedy appeared to be more admirable than Nixon in front of television that was watched by more than 70 million Americans. This is also supported by Hewitt, who also stated that “it was obvious to the Americans who watched the first debate on September 26, 1960 that Kennedy had won the first debate.” Furthermore, Theodore White, a journalist on the 1960 campaign said, “ When the debate begin, Nixon was generally viewed as being the probable winner…and Kennedy as fighting an uphill battle, when the debates were over, the positions of the two contestants were reversed.”

These evidences suggested that Kennedy’s superior image that night had given him the lead over Nixon. Moreover, according to an experiment done by James Druckman, statistics show that the sample group who watched the debates visually favored Kennedy over Nixon. Yet, the sample group that listened to the debates of 1960 said that Nixon had the upper hand to Kennedy. This is critical because although Nixon spoke better than Kennedy, Kennedy’s image benefited him to be viewed as a more worthy and stronger candidate than Richard Nixon.

This can also be proved by the Gallup polls taken prior to the debates and after the debates. Prior to the debates, Kennedy had 46% and Nixon had 47% with the remaining 7% who stand undecided. However, after the debates, Kennedy had 51% to Nixon’s 45% and a rest of 4% undecided. Overall, these debates made Kennedy seemed like a more reliable candidate than Nixon, although Druckman’s experiment showed Nixon as a better speaker than Kennedy.

Nevertheless, John F. Kennedy didn’t only use his image as a way to win the election of 1960. He also took advantage of these debates to show Americans that he had the ability to run for president. At age 43, Kennedy was the youngest candidate to ever run for president and he was often criticized for being inexperience and naïve. On the other hand, Nixon had been in the public eyes for 8 years. Furthermore, Kennedy’s background had also raised depreciations to his worthiness of being a candidate. For instance, Kennedy was also the first Roman Catholic candidate to ever run for president, and his campaigns were criticized by Protestants as “skeptical.”

Kennedy was also debased for being rich, his enormous spending on his campaigns devalued his run for presidency and raised arguments from his rivals like Hubert Humphery, who said that “[Kennedy] bought his presidency.” So these debates gave Kennedy the perfect opportunity to show Americans that he was a worthy candidate. And having appeared so admirable in the first debate and ended the debate strongly with the idea to moving American forward, Kennedy can be seen to have started strong and ended strong. Furthermore, a survey showed that after all four debates, Kennedy was able to win over independent voters by a margin of more than 2 to Nixon’s 1. This marked great success to Kennedy’s popularity because he was able to show Americans that he was a worthy and respectable candidate.

Part E: Conclusion

In conclusion, the televised debates of 1960 affected the presidential election to a near full extent, because John F. Kennedy affectively used the televised debates, which had over 70 million viewers, to make a strong impression of himself. Although he was not as a strong debater as Richard Nixon, his physical appearance made a more credible impact, showing that the role of imagery is more important than the future of America that is envisioned by candidate.

Moreover, this usage of appearances and media over issues that America was facing, this debate made a revolutionary change to the style of campaigning in the future. However, this might perhaps not be entirely accurate because according the election results; it was shown that Kennedy received votes from more than 80% of the nation’s Catholics. This signifies that the Kennedy might have won the presidency in 1960 because he was the first Catholic to ever become a president, which might have been what Kennedy had used to get this country “moving again.”

Part F: Bibliography

1960 Presidential Election Results by States, John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.
http://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Ready-Reference/JFK-Miscellaneous-Information/1960-Presidential-Election.aspx Donaldson A. Gary. The First Modern Campaign Kennedy, Nixon and the election of 1960. USA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2007. Druckman, N. James. The Power of Television Images: The First Kennedy-Nixon Debate Revisited. The Journal of Politics Vol. 65 No. 2 (2003) pp. 559-77. England: Cambridge University Press. Life of John F. Kennedy. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/Life-of-John-F-Kennedy.aspx (date accessed May 1, 2012) Richard M. Nixon, the White House. http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/richardnixon. (date accessed May 1, 2012) Rorabaugh, W. J. The Real Making of the President. Kansas University Press of Kansas, 2009 Jones, T. Kevin. The Role of Televised Debate in the U.S. Presidential Election Process (1960-2004). Louisiana: University Press of Louisiana of South, 2005


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