The Effect of Presidential Debate on the Electorate's Attitude

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The extent to which debates might effect the electorate’s attitude remains a matter of contention. The case of the first televised presidential debate of September 26, 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon exemplifies it. It is well known that there are no right or wrong answers in such a format. The main issue is how to identify a winner.

We know the election results. But, according to my opinion, Nixon was more convincing (“1960 Presidential Debate #1 (John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon) (9/26/60)” 00:08:24-00:16:25). It should be recalled that, immediately after debate, there was no consensus on Kennedy’s election victory (Kallina Jr. 123; Botelho), but he finally won. There are several explanations for this fact.

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First, I would like to focus on the effect of personality characteristics upon voters’ attitude (O’Connor and Sabato 282, 295, 299), and interpretation of the debate by news media (O’Connor and Sabato 286). In that connection, I would like to emphasize the role of television. Experts agree that television changed tools of presidential campaigns (O’Connor and Sabato 282, 287; Botelho; Druckman; Kallina Jr. 123). In addition, the format of TV debate was dominated by “cosmetic politics” when speakers did not touch upon some important issues (Botelho). There were many assumptions on appearance of both candidates partly due to Nixon’s knee injury (Kallina Jr. 115-116; Botelho). For example, former Sen. B. Dole noted that Nixon “didn’t look well,” in contrast, his opponent “was young and articulate and… wiped him out” (Botelho). In that regard, it is noteworthy that scholars conducted experiments on perceptions of televised and audio versions of the debate. The findings show that for TV-watchers personality factors prevailed over overall evaluations. As a result, they consider Kennedy as a winner (Druckman 568-570). It is remarkable that even in September 1960 some radio listeners highly estimate Nixon’s performance (Botelho; Kallina Jr. 123). Indeed, Nixon’s diction was clear and confident. He supported his arguments by statistical data demonstrating awareness of state affairs. What happened may be illustrated by words of B. DuMont, president of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, who said that “it was not just what you said in a campaign that was important, but how you looked saying it” (Botelho). Indeed, it is true that Nixon concentrated on the content of his speech, while Kennedy paid attention to his appearance, and tried to reach people (Kallina Jr. 122-123). It is important that both candidates attempted to answer questions, and demonstrated respect to each other. Kennedy’s debating style and demeanor also effected the audience. He appealed to feelings and emotions by using rhetoric devices (e.g., repetitions such as “I am not satisfied…” and personal pronounces), building patterns of solidarity and calling on all citizens to move forward. We also should take into account such an influential factor as a party affiliation of both candidates (O’Connor and Sabato 295). Republican R. Nixon made an accent on too huge burden on the federal government, while Democrat J. Kennedy stressed issues of economic development, social security, and freedom protection. This difference is also explained by Nixon’s background as a representative of executive branch, and Kennedy’s experience as a legislator.

I assume that the other reason of Kennedy’s predominant popularity was targeted character of his speech. He enumerated the real problems of concrete American citizens (“1960 Presidential Debate #1 (John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon) (9/26/60)” 00:03:39-00:04:27, 00:06:00-00:06:37). It was a signal that his further policy will address these problems. We know from theory that individual issues may significantly influence on elections outcomes (O’Connor and Sabato 299). Thus, it is generally accepted that debates’ impact should not be underestimated, especially when candidates have approximately equal chances. But now we live in the world shaped by new media strategies. Politicians have to follow the rules of TV show. In this context, the level of their competences and intellectual capacities, unfortunately, do not matter. As a result, today, it is much more difficult to predict the electorate’s perceptions and attitude toward candidates.

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