Smithsonian Magazine had an article on presidential debates and the effects of TV on them. The first, of course, was Kennedy and Nixon and Nixon’s appearance on TV drastically affected this debate’s outcome in the minds of the audience:
In 1960, Nixon, then vice president, was expected to perform brilliantly against Kennedy, but few politicians have ever bombed so badly. The striking contrast of their images on the television screen made all the difference. Nixon, who had recently been in the hospital with a knee injury, was pale, underweight, and running a fever, while Kennedy, fresh from campaigning in California, was tanned and buoyantly energetic. Before they went on the air, both candidates refused the services of a cosmetician. Kennedy’s staff, however, gave him a quick touch up. Nixon, cursed by a five o’clock shadow, slapped on Lazy Shave, an over-the counter powder cover-up. It would only heighten his ghastly pallor on the TV screen. Voters who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon performed just as expertly as Kennedy, but TV viewers could not see beyond his haggard appearance.
TV Debates are now the norm and expected:
No election rules require candidates to debate. After his dismal performance in 1960, Nixon refused to participate in 1968 and 1972. More recently, John McCain tried to cancel one of his matchups with Barack Obama in 2008, saying that he had urgent business back in Washington. But over the years, the public has come to expect that candidates will be courageous enough to face each other on television, live and unscripted.
Tens of millions of viewers tune in to watch debates, and advocates call them indispensable for helping undecideds make up their minds. “If the campaign is a job interview with the public,” says Charlie Gibson, moderator for the 2004 Bush-Kerry contest, then debates are a priceless chance “to compare styles, to get a sense of their ease with issues.” In several elections, debates have dramatically shifted voter perceptions and even, some experts argue, changed the outcome of the race.
TV Debates have come under criticsm though:
Partly because they exert such great influence, televised debates have always received heated criticism. Some complain that the answers tend to be superficial, that charisma trumps substance, that pundits needlessly obsess about minor goofs.
Little things can make huge statements in a debate and a lasting impression on the audience, aided by the press coverage:
Little spats like this one are catnip to the media, who habitually cover debates as if they were sporting events, with clear winners and losers. “They’re trying to make it a political prizefight,” says John Anderson, who debated Ronald Reagan as an Independent in 1980. “They want to see a candidate throw a sucker punch.” It’s this mentality that causes commentators to magnify every blunder: in 1992, for example, George H.W. Bush repeatedly glanced at his watch during a town hall debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, and pundits had a field day. “That criticism was unfair,” says former Gov. Michael Dukakis, who debated Bush in 1988 and was watching again that night. “In a long debate, you’ve got to have a sense of where you are—so there’s nothing strange about a guy looking at his watch. But it hurt him.”
By appearing bored and impatient, Bush inadvertently reinforced his own image as an aloof patrician. Many debaters have similarly damaged themselves by confirming what voters already feared—Carter seemed touchy-feely in 1980 when he implied that his young daughter, Amy, advised him on nuclear arms; Gore, supercilious when he loudly sighed in 2000; McCain, angry when he dismissively called Obama “That One” in 2008. Such episodes are so common, we tend to remember debates not for what went right, but what went wrong.
Great Britain just televised their first debate and we see a similar story to the Kennedy/Nixon debate:
Fifty years after Nixon’s fatal debate debut, a similar upset played out recently in Great Britain, where televised debates were introduced this spring for the first time ever in a general election. Nick Clegg, 43, a little-known candidate from the small third-place Liberal Democrats Party, performed spectacularly in debate against two better-known rivals. After the first encounter, his personal approval ratings skyrocketed to 78 percent, the highest ever seen in Britain since Churchill’s in World War II. As with Kennedy in 1960 (also just 43), the public could suddenly envision the energetic Clegg as a national leader.