The First Televised Presidential Debate
Political historians and media experts alike agree that the televised presidential debate between Republican Vice President Richard Nixon and his relatively unknown challenger, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, on Sept. 26, 1960, changed the face of presidential elections.
For the first time, American voters didn't just hear candidates speak about their policies, platforms and competitors' weaknesses; viewers could now see the candidates present their arguments. The change made for an opinion landslide in Kennedy's favor: The young, handsome politician appeared with a level of suave confidence that overshadowed the pale, unhealthy-looking Nixon [source: Barnhart].
The debate marked a shift in how Americans consumed news. Radio listeners spoke highly of Nixon, estimating that he came out ahead in the debate. But TV viewers -- a growing majority of the media public at that point -- pointed to Kennedy as the winner. The TV majority proved to reflect public sentiment: Kennedy won the election [source: Webley].
The debate marked a turning point in the race for the White House. Candidates could no longer rely solely on their speaking abilities or the strengths of their platforms. Political campaigning became an image game -- confident posture, demeanor and an attractive, authoritative appearance all became major factors in public perception of candidates.