Style and Substances in Presidential Elections

Oct 2014
430
Las Vegas NV
#1
The Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 marked a change in presidential campaigning -- triumph of style over substance. Those who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon sounded more presidential while those who watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy, with his calm and youthful appearance, looked more presidential. With today’s instantaneous news via cell phone videos, the internet, and 24-hour television coverage, a presidential candidate must appeal to the mass ignorance of flibbertigibbets rather than to the intelligence of the voting public. Thomas Jefferson would have failed because he stuttered; Abraham Lincoln loomed awkward and ugly; Franklin Roosevelt sat in a wheelchair and did not have a beauty queen for a wife. Campaign speeches are full of flowery rhetorical devices that allure listeners into believing he or she alone stands truth, justice, and the American way. The candidate must go out of his or her way to look like Archie and Edith Bunker. Negative campaigning makes a mockery of democracy. It is a circus; however, I have provided some entertaining sites on the history of presidential campaigning for your enjoyment-

Presidential Campaigns: A Cartoon History 1789-1976

https://www.commentarymagazine.com/2010/10/29/some-historical-perspective-on-negative-campaigning/
 
Oct 2014
859
Westeros
#2
Yes! That TV debate ushered in an age of quite a few dynamics that are alive and well in the American political scene to this day.

Besides being the dawn of TV playing such a huge role--and your aforementioned emphasis on style--and pithy soundbites--over substance, another interesting thing about the JFK-Tricky Dick debate was some of the underhanded ploys that Kennedy's people did.

For example, knowing of Nixon's unfortunate propensity to perspire when stressed, JFK's handlers cranked up the thermostat in the TV studio several degrees. Many many viewers noticed the sheen of sweat on Nixon's upper lip, and of course consciously or sub-consciously equated that with dishonesty, nervousness, or maybe just weakness belying a lack of presidential-type calm and reserve when under the gun.

(If I recall, that election was pretty damn close, wasn't it?) I wonder if the sweaty lip actually made the crucial difference in the final voting? If so, it would be truly ironic that a man who would leave the White House in shame some 15 years later for repercussions stemming from his treachery was in fact the first potential POTUS victimized by same.

Nowadays of course spin and character attacks and flat-out slander are all fair game in the seamy world of politics--and I suppose they always have been to some degree. But TV certainly provided a massive audience for these tactics to unfold.

"It has been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first."
Ronald Reagan
 
Aug 2011
7,045
Texas
#3
The Nixon - Kennedy debates, huh? I've often mentioned Nixon's comments on his defeat by the Kennedy's money, under reported dirty tactics and glamor as teaching him a profound lesson. A lesson that would see him brought down some years later when the office of POTUS had lost its luster in public perception.
 
May 2013
1,696
Colorado
#4
Washington would never had made it today. He usually spoke quietly (he could not even be heard taking the Oath during the first inauguration), he was formal with strangers, reserved and did not like to be touched - no good old boy backslapping for him!
 
Jan 2009
3,333
Minneapolis, MN
#5
The Nixon-Kennedy debates were certainly a crossroads in electioneering. I'm not sure I quite agree it was a "triumph of style over substance." Convince me.

It appears to me that mudslinging has long been a favored technique in elections. Some of the very early campaigns have been some of the dirtiest. (Jackson v. van Buren, or Adams v. Jefferson for example.)

But it's true that the candidates now prostitute themselves to a mass audience that was not possible in earlier years.
 
Jan 2008
18,733
Chile, Santiago
#6
The Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 marked a change in presidential campaigning -- triumph of style over substance. Those who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon sounded more presidential while those who watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy, with his calm and youthful appearance, looked more presidential.
This is a complete myth:

There is quite simply no persuasive evidence to support the notion that television viewers and radio listeners decisively disagreed about the outcome of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, which took place in Chicago on September 26, 1960.

That such an effect did occur — or must have occurred — is attractive for a number of reasons: It acknowledges the presumptive power of the televised image. It renders uncomplicated the intricacies of an important political moment of long ago. And it offers an enduring though misguided lesson that content matters less than appearance.

Significantly, the broad media embrace of the debate myth ignores the powerful dismantling published 25 years ago by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

In their article in Central States Speech Journal, Vancil and Pendell noted that one “of the most perplexing legacies of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate is the claim that radio listeners and television viewers came to opposite conclusions about the debate winners.”

They proceeded to explode that notion, pointing out that accounts of viewer-listener disagreement about the debate typically were anecdotal and impressionistic — hardly representative of the American electorate in 1960.

They also called attention to “a false impression” that “major polling organizations, such as Gallup, concentrated part of their attention on the reactions of radio listeners.” That hardly was the case.

The one polling organization that did identify radio listeners in a post-debate survey was Sindlinger & Co.
Sindlinger reported that poll respondents who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won, by a 2-to-1 margin.
But the Sindlinger sub-sample of radio listeners included 282 respondents — of whom only 178 offered an opinion about the debate winner, far too few to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions.

Not only was the sub-sample unrepresentative, it did not identify from where the sub-sample of radio listeners was drawn. “A location bias in the radio sample,” Vancil and Pendell pointed out, “could have caused dramatic effects on the selection of a debate winner. A rural bias, quite possible because of the relatively limited access of rural areas to television in 1960, would have favored Nixon.”

Those and several other defects render the Sindlinger result meaningless.
The ironic thing is that if you watch the Kennedy/Nixon debates today, what you clearly see and hear is two highly intelligent and well-informed politicians debating each other in a way that puts anything that you would see from presidential candidates today to shame:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbrcRKqLSRw
 
Nov 2013
588
US
#7
Presidential debates have always been a novelty. Truth be told, most people already have their minds made up and just support their party. With Kennedy and Nixon, the presidential debate was this totally new thing so people didn't mind hearing them talk for 10 minutes at a time.

Nowadays ideas are constrained to 1-2 minute bits. Maybe it's because of low attention spans, or a busier generation but most likely it's because there are much more complex issues today than there were in 1960.
 

Port

Ad Honorem
Feb 2013
2,086
portland maine
#8
Presidential debates have always been a novelty. Truth be told, most people already have their minds made up and just support their party. With Kennedy and Nixon, the presidential debate was this totally new thing so people didn't mind hearing them talk for 10 minutes at a time.

Nowadays ideas are constrained to 1-2 minute bits. Maybe it's because of low attention spans, or a busier generation but most likely it's because there are much more complex issues today than there were in 1960.
Candidates will use the technology available Early on candidates did not campaign ( a military term) T.Roosevelt campaigned by rail. Visiting many states even those he knew would not vote for him (the south) Then the power of television Kennedy anyone remember his being sworn in o a grey day lots of wind, his hair blowing along with his dark tie. Kennedy was looking young and strong the image he wanted to project. Recently the internet has become a tool. Obama used it very successfully while McCain did not.