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Why the US presidential debates are crucial

September 25, 2008
The September 26, 1960, US Presidential debate between US Senator John F Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon remains an iconic moment in American national politics, even today, nearly 50 years later.

It was the first-ever televised presidential debate and roughly 68 million views (1/3 of all Americans) tuned in to watch the young upstart Massachusetts Senator spar with the battle-tested Republican. Legend has it that those who listened by radio or who read the transcripts considered Nixon the winner, while those who watched via television thought Kennedy had come out on top.

The reason?

Nixon, dressed in a drab grey suit and looking extremely uncomfortable, fidgeted and sweated throughout the debate, while the well-tanned, boyishly good looking Kennedy seemed positively effervescent.

Before the debate, polls showed the race to be a statistical dead-heat, with Nixon considered the favourite by many of the day’s top political pundits. But after the first debate, when viewers had the chance to compare and contrast the two side by side, Kennedy's campaign gained momentum and he pulled slightly ahead of Nixon in most polls. On November 8, voters affirmed Kennedy's debate victory by electing him the 35th President of the United States. It was official: the dominance of television as a medium in US presidential politics had arrived.

Looking back, there are some similarities between the Kennedy-Nixon campaign and this Obama-McCain race. Click to continue reading...

Text: Matthew Schneeberger

Image: Former US Presidents Richard Nixon (Left) and John F Kennedy.
Photograph: National Archive/Newsmakers

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