Mazzo was head of the Washington Bureau of the New York
Herald-Tribune when this paper was published in 1962. He
traveled extensively with both candidates during the 1960
Presidential campaign, and had access to much private poll
and public opinion research data in the course of covering
Kennedy and those intimate with his campaign for the Presidency
in 1960 are certain that the paramount factor in his victory
was the Great Debates on television, especially the first
Vice-President Nixon and those closest to his campaign agree
that the debates cost the Republican cause dearly. But they
contend that other negative factors were more decisive in
the Nixon defeat. Robert Finch, the Nixon campaign director,
says, for instance: "Conceding the worst on everything else,
we still would have won if 400,000 people had not become
unemployed during the last thirty days of the campaign."
own view, based on an analysis of surveys and polls I consider
reliable and on a first-hand acquaintanceship with much
of the campaign and its participants, is that if there had
been no debates on television, Nixon would have been elected
Presidential television spectaculars began as a public service
promotion by one network. All the networks quickly joined
in, offering free time to the major party candidates if
Congress would suspend a rule requiring equal time for all
candidates, including those of minor parties and the crackpots
who always get their names on ballots in some states. The
rule suspension passed Congress during its session after
the Conventions and was signed by President Eisenhower on
of the oldest axioms of American politics is that well-known
candidates should not appear jointly with or in any other
way lend their prestige to lesser-known opponents. At the
outset of the 1960 campaign Republican Richard Nixon, the
Vice-President for nearly eight years, was far more widely
known than Democrat John F. Kennedy, the junior Senator
from Massachusetts. Mr. Kennedy's principal distinction
was as an adroit and relentless campaigner for the Democratic
nomination who turned generally regarded political liabilities
like religion and youth into vote-getting assets.
Eisenhower privately objected to Mr. Nixon's debating his
Democratic rival. When he signed the measure suspending
the equal-time rule, Eisenhower pointedly stated that the
free time offered by networks would not necessarily "have
to be in a debating atmosphere."
Kennedy was eager for joint appearances with Vice-President
Nixon, however-the more the merrier. Nixon was well aware
that he had practically nothing to gain from debates and
that his opponent automatically would come off best merely
if he held his own and avoided visibly serious blunders.
Still, the Vice-President could find no graceful way of
rejecting the television network offers. Pierre Salinger,
Kennedy's campaign press secretary and now press spokesman
at the White House, told me long after the election that
Kennedy and his advisors were surprised that Nixon agreed
to the joint appearance.
individuals, both candidates were master performers on television.
Both also were superior debaters. Nixon's "Checkers speech"
in the 1952 campaign is still a landmark in political television.
During that half-hour program the Republican nominee for
Vice-President transformed himself from a major liability
who was on the verge of being thrown off the Eisenhower
ticket into a campaign asset. Furthermore, Nixon owed his
election to Congress in 1946-the start of his political
career-to the fact that his opponent, veteran Democratic
Congressman Jerry Voorhis, agreed to a series of debates.
Just a year before his campaign for the Presidency Nixon
achieved a new high in national popularity after his "Kitchen
Debate" with Soviet Premier Khrushchev.
also had a string of television and debating successes prior
to the Presidential spectacular of 1960. His election as
Senator from Massachusetts in 1952 resulted in part from
the fact that Senator Henry Cabot Lodge made somewhat the
same mistake Nixon was to make eight years later. The 50-year-old
Senator Lodge agreed to debate the 35-year-old Representative
Kennedy. And although the Lodge-Kennedy debates were adjudged
a stand-off by the experts, political professionals were
aware that the young Representative Kennedy, a junior member
of the House with no particular record of accomplishment,
had greatly improved his prospects merely by standing on
the same platform and seeming to do as well as Lodge, a
notable figure in the upper house, leader of the Eisenhower
movement, and grandson and namesake of a distinguished Senator.
his long campaign for the Democratic nomination Kennedy
repeatedly demonstrated his prowess as a television personality
and crowd persuader. His televised exchange with Harry Truman
just before the Democratic National Convention and his "'debate"
with Lyndon Johnson during the Convention should in themselves
have given the Nixon camp pause when the Great Debates were
first Kennedy-Nixon encounter on September 26, 1960, was
unquestionably the most consequential. The Kennedy campaign
hierarchy figured with considerable justification that it
was the only debate that really mattered. Kennedy was so
effective in conveying what the trade calls an "image of
maturity" in his first try that the three debates that followed
were anti-climactic-important only to the extent that Kennedy
felt compelled to keep on his toes and maintain the advantage
that his private polls showed him to have gained at the
Aside from any effect it may have had on voters, the really
telling impact of this first joint appearance was on the
candidates, their entourages, and Republican and Democratic
partisans across the country. Before September 26, the Nixon
camp was riding high. Huge, enthusiastic crowds were turning
out for the Republican candidate; Republicans were wearing
broad victory smiles even in the Deep South; and the Nixon
campaign organization was full of zest. The Kennedy campaign,
on the other hand, had not yet got off the ground. At Detroit's
annual Labor Day rally in Cadillac Square, the combined
efforts of Walter Reuter and the other labor leaders could
hardly turn out a respectable crowd for candidate Kennedy.
Party people everywhere seemed to have a lacksadaisical
attitude toward their standard-bearer and his cause.
But the candidates and their followers underwent an immediate
change after the first debate. Now the Kennedy camp walked
on clouds, while the Nixon camp became grim and nervous
and could talk only of "recouping." The Kennedy image on
television that first night sparkled, while Nixon's was
a disaster. The next day and for days afterwards, crowds
turned out to see the handsome figure of the Democratic
candidate in the flesh, while Republican officials descended
on Nixon to see for themselves if he was as "sick" as he
had appeared on the television screens. At one point, Herbert
Klein, the Nixon press secretary, found it necessary to
issue a statement: "Mr. Nixon is in excellent health and
looks good in person."
Ever since, there have been intensive discussions among
politicians and television production experts about the
make-up, the lighting, the color of suits, hairdos, sunlamp
treatments, and so forth-illustrating that the debates were
practically as much a duel between make-up artists and technical
directors as a contest for the Presidency of the United
Both sides prepared carefully for each session, of course.
But an added fillip made the Kennedy warm-up unique. A Kennedy
organization man, borrowed from the staff of Governor Pat
Brown of California, followed Nixon almost everywhere to
record his speeches and off-the-cuff comments, and, prior
to each debate, selections from the Nixon tapes were played
to Kennedy to help put him in a properly aggressive mood.
Nixon "warmed up" very differently. Instead of conferring
with a team of briefers or working himself up to a fighting
pitch by listening to the recorded voice of his rival, Nixon
hid away with notes and memoranda and pondered the pending
battles in seclusion.
ASIDE from the candidates, the debates affected most notably
the television and the polling and public-opinion reconnoitering
industries, two relatively new business enterprises with
tremendous growth prospects.
different categories of pollsters were in the act. One felt
pulses for the candidates and political parties, another
for the television networks, and a third for the news media.
A fourth worked the polling circuit just for the hell-of-it.
Katz of the University of Chicago and Jacob J. Feldman of
the National Opinion Research Center came across twenty-two
different polling operations while making a comprehensive
study of the debates. There were many more than that, however,
and they ranged from polls by individual Congressional candidates
who were interested solely in the impact on their home districts
to private operators like the Schwerin Research Corporation,
which specializes in testing reactions to television commercials.
The Schwerin organization interspersed a few questions about
each debate among their queries concerning soap, deodorant,
and headache remedy commercials. Schwerin's special audience
in a special Manhattan studio went strongly for Kennedy
on the first debate.
ratio was 39 to 23 per cent, with the rest "even" or no
opinion. All told, the candidates, their parties, and their
other supporters spent well over $250,000 just to audit
voter reaction to the debate.
Lou Harris was the principal public-opinion surveyor for
Kennedy and the late Claude Robinson was chief pollster
for Nixon. Each set up "flash" operations to get their bosses
an immediate report after every performance. Harris found
things looking up for Kennedy each time, but most notably
after the first debate. Robinson minced few words in his
summaries. Following the fourth debate, for example, his
report to Nixon stated, in part: "Voters give Nixon a little
the better in stating his case in the fourth debate." Then
he followed up with the nub of the whole business: "Kennedy,
however, started the campaign as the less well-known candidate
and with many of his adherents wondering about his maturity.
He has done a good job of dissipating the immaturity label
and has increased his standing on every issue test. Kennedy
has succeed in creating a victory psychology."
There were disparities between the polls taken for candidates
and those for television networks. For one thing, pollsters
surveying for the politicians referred to the audience in
terms of "adults" while those for the networks saw the viewers
as "television families." Frank Stanton, president of the
Columbia Broadcasting System, said that his firm's poll-takers
found that audiences for the debates averaged 20 per cent
larger than those for entertainment programs at the same
time. Half-hour paid political broadcasts had audiences
about 30 per cent less than those of the debates according
to the CBS surveys. Nearly nine out of ten "television families"
tuned in the debates at one time or another, more than half
(53.1 per cent) watched at least three, and one family out
of four had a television set on for all. Generally, the
television industry reported that 75,000,000 people watched
the first debate, while the candidates' pollsters reported
privately that the figure was closer to 70,000,000. On the
second debate the industry figure was 62,500,000, the politicians'
figure was 51,000,000; on the third, the figure was 60,000,000
according to the industry, and 48,000,000 according to the
political pollsters; and on the fourth debate the spread
between the industry and political pulse-takers was 70,000,000
and 48,000,000. Despite the conflicts, every known poll
agreed that as a whole the audience for the television performances
never fell below 50 to 55 per cent of the nation's adult
population-more voters, undoubtedly, than any candidate
could ever possibly have reached on his own.
every station carried the debates simultaneously, and in
most places there were no alternative programs. In the few
communities where Westerns or something else competed with
the Presidential performers, the audience ratings for the
debates were decidedly lower-between 15 and 20 per cent
less, in fact-than in the towns, villages, and cities where
the debates monopolized all the channels and television
addicts had to watch or go without. Regardless of why people
watched, or for how long, there is no doubt that the debates
had a substantial impact both in the size of turn-out at
the polls and in the way many people voted. The Nixon polling
organization figured that 21 per cent of the voters switched
their allegiance between Labor Day and October 27, after
the fourth debate, and there was a net gain of 1 per cent
for Kennedy. Elmo Roper, the most reliable public-opinion
analyst I know, found in a post-election survey that 57
per cent of the voters said they had been influenced to
an extent by the debates. Six per cent of them-some 4,000,000
voters-decided how to cast their ballots on the basis of
the television performances, and their verdict was 3 to
1 for Kennedy, providing him with considerably more votes
than the 2/lOOths of 1 per cent by which he won the popular
In a rundown of the polls and surveys that they reviewed,
Katz and Feldman found that "the debates were more effective
in presenting the candidates than the issues" and that Kennedy
was the winner from the standpoint of looks and "image,"
while Nixon led on issues. Just about every pollster, including
those measuring public opinion privately for Nixon and Kennedy,
agreed with that assessment.
fact that Nixon came within an infinitesimal margin of victory
demonstrates that he personally was much more acceptable
to the nation's voters than his party. A private poll taken
in his behalf immediately after the Democratic Convention
showed that the Kennedy-Johnson ticket would beat any that
Nixon led by a decisive 5 to 6 per cent, but, subsequently,
Nixon's leadership at the Republican Convention and his
unusually well-received acceptance speech brought a shift,
and in early August the private surveys showed the two candidates
to be running almost even among voters who expressed a preference.
There was, however, an extraordinarily large "wait and see"
Republican task was to win over more Democrats and independents
by accentuating Nixon's image as an experienced man best
qualified to take up where Eisenhower left off. The Kennedy
task, essentially, was to get all the Democratic votes and
to highlight Nixon's identification as a Republican. A confidential
memorandum circulated among key Democratic figures by the
party's National Committee noted: "Nixon's clear association
in the people's minds with the Republican Party makes it
of utmost importance to strengthen that association. At
the beginning of 1960 the Democratic Party was still close
to its 1958 popularity peak. To close the 3-2 advantage
which Democrats enjoy, Nixon must create an 'above the party'
image. Democrats can prevent this by continually linking
him to the unpopular policies (pro-big business, anti-farmer)
of the Republican Party... The new Nixon must be constantly
made a Republican, big-business Nixon."
the organizational and statistical standpoint, any Democrat
should have overwhelmed any Republican in the 1960 national
election. Across the country, there were three registered
Democrats for every two Republicans. Democrats controlled
all the major power centers-the governorships, both Senate
seats, all the Congressmen, and both houses of the legislature-in
eleven states, while the Republicans enjoyed that amount
of power in only one, New Hampshire. Thirty-four governors
were Democrats, to sixteen Republicans. In Congress, the
Democratic majorities were 66-34 in the Senate and 280-152
in the House. Democrats dominated the legislatures in twenty-nine
states, the Republicans in seven. In 128 of the nation's
177 cities, the mayors were Democrats. Organizationally,
the Republican Party was in its worst shape since the 1936
Roosevelt landslide that almost swept it out of existence.
its handicaps, the Republican Party did slightly better
in the Congressional and state races of 1960 than it had
in 1958. Nixon, however, ran well ahead of his party in
most places. I am certain he would have done much better-enough
to overcome comfortably the margin of his defeat-had the
televised debates not cost him the "experience" issue-or,
conversely, had they not nullified the "immaturity" issue
that Republicans sought to use against Kennedy.
this instance the television performances did both a "wrong"
and a "right." Nixon unquestionably had the "experience,"
as advertised in his campaign brochures, and Kennedy was
by no means "immature."
to candidate Kennedy, the television industry was the chief
beneficiary of the debates. The interest they generated
was a significant factor in the record turn-out of voters,
and this dramatized the fantastic potential of televised
mass exposure even when the product is politics-or candidates
for President. A recheck by the Opinion Research Corporation
of persons who said in August that they did not intend to
vote found that one out of four of them actually did, and
most favored Kennedy. The total turnout of 68,833,000 exceeded
the Eisenhower-Stevenson vote of 1956 by more than 6,000,000.
All told, the television networks gave the candidates approximately
$6,000,000 worth of free time. This was a notable public
service, but it did the television industry no harm. The
combined wizardry of all of Madison Avenue's advertising
and public relations geniuses could probably never achieve
for any industry the degree of saturation and exposure that
the debates gave to the television industry. With Presidential
candidates performing, free, in the most extensively seen
spectacular ever televised, the industry amassed a type
and volume of publicity and advertising that it could not
have bought at any price. At all levels now, underdog candidates
for everything from mayor and sheriff to governor are clamoring
for televised debates with their better-known opponents.
The focus of political campaigning has moved to television.
is interesting to speculate on how televised debates might
have altered our history. Henry Steele Commager believes
that George Washington would have lost a television debate,
and even Jefferson, "for all his erudition and his literary
gracefulness," would have done poorly under the klieg lights
of a television spectacular.
one who will never forget the shock of seeing news-reels
of Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair after the Yalta Conference,
I often wondered what the effect might have been if television
had revealed to the nation the fact that Roosevelt could
not walk. Again, would Dewey have won, or would he have
been beaten even more decisively, if the 1948 campaign had
been highlighted by Dewey-Truman appearances on national
And what of Stevenson and Eisenhower? My conjecture is that
the eloquent, articulate, and witty Stevenson would probably
have torn his opponent to ribbons on radio-but on television
most eyes and hearts would have been won by the Eisenhower
smile and "image."
medium of political communication has a certain amount of
built-in distortion. The Kennedy-Nixon debates pointed up
the sharp contrast between radio and television. The night
of the first encounter I was in Hot Springs, Arkansas, covering
the Southern Governors' Conference. At the time, the Hot
Springs television station was not linked directly to a
network and its telecast of the debate was a re-play an
hour or so after the actual performance. But Hot Springs
did have network radio. The reactions of the governors and
reporters with whom I first heard, then saw, the debate
pointed up the difference between hearing and seeing. Before
the encounter on radio was half finished every Kennedy partisan
in the room was disparaging the whole idea of a fine, upstanding
young man like Senator Kennedy having to clash verbally
with a crusty old professional debater like Vice-President
Nixon. But the attitude changed immediately when the magic
lantern of television came on.
reading of the texts would show that neither candidate really
said much that night. Nor did either score any clearly distinctive
points. Nixon was best on radio simply because his deep,
resonant voice conveyed more conviction, command, and determination
than Kennedy's higher-pitched voice and his Boston-Harvard
accent But on television, Kennedy looked sharper, more in
control, more firm - his was the image of the man who could
stand up to Khrushchev.
It may be significant that Nixon did best on Election Day
in areas that had the biggest radio audiences for the debates,
especially the first one. For instance, in the West, which
Nixon carried, 9 per cent of the adults heard the performances
on radio; in the East, which Nixon lost, the radio audience
was about 2 per cent.
Television obviously has already had a great effect on American
politics, and it is likely to have much more. The last national
party Conventions were planned and executed mostly for the
benefit of television. It is possible that by 1964 the campaigns
for President will begin to center on televised debates.
As a political reporter who has observed many campaigns
at all levels for more than two decades, I look at television
electioneering as being neither particularly good nor particularly
bad for the democratic process.
proposals for improving the format of future debates have
been offered. It has been suggested also that laws governing
the debates be enacted to protect the participants. My view
is that since the Kennedy-Nixon encounters were ground-breakers
the debates in future campaigns should and probably will
benefit from this initial experiment. But I doubt that any
useful purpose can be served by passing laws. It is unlikely
that they would be any more effective than those long on
the books which ostensibly control campaign spending. Laws
governing debates might well add up to nothing more than
additional legal obstacles for one side or the other, or
both, to find ways of circumventing. There are too many
election-control laws of that kind already. I believe that
the broadcasting industry, the Presidential candidates,
and their campaign hierarchies will manage the situation
very well, in view of the wisdom they usually display collectively.
changes in format for the next debates that they might consider
are these: Have the first two or three encounters restricted
to one or two overriding issues; reserve at least one of
the joint appearances for the Vice-Presidential candidates,
or perhaps have them appear with the Presidential candidates
on one or two shows; hold the last debate a week or ten
days before the election, and make it a no-holds-barred
verbal contest between the candidates with no one in the
middle. This could be the real debate of the series, with
each contender permitted to ask his foe anything he wants
to ask - and perhaps to confront him with "false charges"
or anything of that sort which may need airing before the
Even with these changes the debates would still affect elections
and the cause of better government only to a limited degree.
The advent of public-address systems, trains, automobiles,
radio, pollsters, news syndicates, and all kinds of communications
media have brought many changes, better and worse, in campaign
In the 1960 post-election period Robert Kennedy, the President's
brother and campaign manager, expressed doubt that the President
would agree to debate his Republican opponent in 1964. When
the President was asked at one of his earliest White House
press conferences: "Could you tell us, to clear the air
on this, whether if you are a candidate in 1964 you would
agree to debate?" he replied: "I would, yes."
was said three years and seven or eight months before the
next campaign. I suspect that President Kennedy's decision
when the time comes will depend on identity of his opponent,
and that, more likely than not, he will manage to find the
excuses not to debate that Richard Nixon failed to come
up with in 1960. And I wouldn't blame him at all.
An Occasional Paper on the Role of the Political Process
in a Free Society published by The Center for the Study
of Democratic Institutions, 1962; pp. 2-7.