How Presidential Debates Work

Sept. 26, 1960, proved a bad night for Vice-president Richard Nixon. See more pictures of presidents.
Sept. 26, 1960, proved a bad night for Vice-president Richard Nixon. See more pictures of presidents.
Paul Schutzer/Time Life Pictures/ Getty Images

This was a big mistake.

For the first time in history, the two party-nominated candidates for president of the United States were about to debate with television cameras trained on them. And Nixon was beginning to regret agreeing to this.

In the studios of a CBS affiliate in Chicago on Sept. 26, 1960, he felt like death warmed over. The month earlier, he'd slammed his knee into a car door, an injury that became a staph infection. He'd just spent two weeks in the hospital, and now, with the cameras about to roll, he was sweating, 10 pounds underweight and feeling terribly. Some guy had painted the backdrop almost the precise shade of gray as Nixon's suit, and he was fading into it. As if things couldn't possibly get worse, his opponent, Sen. John F. Kennedy, had spent the past month taking it easy on the campaign trail in sunny California. He looked tan, rested and as fit as Nixon had ever seen the kid.

That first debate was a groundbreaking event. Sixty-six million people watched it on television alone [source: CNN]. Historians would capitalize the "d" in debate and place the word "Great" in front of it. And Nixon looked seriously ill throughout.

Whether television had an impact on the 1960 presidential election was clear. A majority of people who listened to the debate on the radio considered Nixon the winner. A poll of TV viewers of that same debate found a clear majority believed Kennedy had won [source: C-SPAN]. Later polls found more than half of voters said the televised series of four debates had shaped how they cast their ballots; six percent said they voted specifically according to their impression of the debates [source: MBC]. Kennedy won the November election.

No longer was politics only about the issues and whatever a campaign could plant in the papers; they were also about aesthetics now. No longer were debates for the benefit of the few people in a room. They were now about the tens of millions who tuned in not only to listen to the candidates but watch them as well.

Lesson learned. So instead of allowing their candidate to be abused by the new medium, campaign managers and party leaders sought ways to exploit it. Presidential debates would never be the same again. By the time the 21st century rolled around, they bore about the same resemblance to that first televised debate in 1960 as the game show in the movie "The Running Man" bears to "You Bet Your Life."