The first presidential debate in 1960 was a creation of the television age, and it quickly entered its founding lore. We’re told those who saw the debate on TV favored the handsome, well made-up Kennedy. Radio listeners, on the other hand, thought Nixon had won. Evidence supporting this story is shoddy — a mix of anecdote, assumptions and a debunked survey – but the story continues to shape how we understand debates today.
Many historians say there is a misplaced focus on the ability of make-up – or other non-substantive aspects of performance – to deliver political victory, when debates have become one of our most important civic rituals, allowing glimpses into candidate’s character that comes from them defending their ideas in an unscripted, high-stakes environment. But what impact has the changing media landscape had on debates? And what does that mean for this election?