The first televised Presidential debate, between then Vice President Richard M. Nixon and then-Senator John F. Kennedy, was held on September 26, 1960, a little more than a month ahead of the November 8, 1960 election.

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Ric...

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Much has been made, then and since, about Nixon’s refusal to use makeup in preparation for the debate, his obvious sweating, and wiping his face during the debate, and Kennedy’s considerable debating skills.

Certainly, this was the first chance a large segment of the population got to see the candidates side-by-side, live on tv. ‘

Radio listeners, apparently, thought Nixon had won the debate.

Television viewers, though, didn’t.

Was it the pasty, lack-of-makeup excuse later credited for Kennedy’s tiny 112,827 vote margin of 0.17% of the 68.8 million votes cast, with 63.1% voting out of 109 million eligible voters?

This was 49.7% to 49.6% of the popular votes, a razor-thin margin.

In 1960, 88% of American households owned a television.

Of these, 70 million tuned in to the first debate. So, it’s fair to argue that the debates mattered.

Polls indicated that the first debate erased Nixon’s 6-point lead and that after all four, Kennedy was ahead.

Watch the debate on YouTube and decide for yourself.

Although the electoral college vote was the closest since 1916, it wasn’t very close, at 303 to 219. And, Kennedy only carried 23 states, while Nixon carried 26.

But, besides the debates, what else might have influenced the election?

What about the fact that this was the first time two new states, Alaska and Hawaii, had voted in a Presidential election, having just come into the Union the year before?

As it happened, Hawaii’s three electoral votes went for Kennedy and Alaska’s three went for Nixon.

There were other factors.

  • The recession hurt the Republican ticket since we had had eight years of a Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower, going into the election
  • There were 17 million more registered Democrats than Republicans
  • Kennedy’s new votes from Catholics nearly neutralized Nixon’s new votes from Protestants
  • Kennedy concentrated on swing states, while Nixon campaigned in all 50
  • Kennedy used big-city bosses, from old-style politicking, to get out the vote in big cities
  • Kennedy’s running mate, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, helped secure votes in the South
  • Kennedy’s tv presence and campaigning skills were superior to Nixon’s.

What were Nixon’s advantages?

  • Americans were skittish about the idea of a Catholic President, concerned this gave too much power to the Pope
  • Nixon, second-in-command to a popular two-term President, was 6 points ahead in the polls going into the debates
  • The Cold War and fear of Communists increased Nixon’s advantage and Kennedy’s disadvantage in perceived ability to handle crises and keep Communism in check. Ultimately, Nixon planned the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and Kennedy carried it out.

But, this obscures the messages from the two candidates.

Nixon’s message was, “We’re the grownups. We know what we’re doing. We’ve got experience running the country. I’ve been an understudy for eight years, seen the decision-making process up close and am ready to take the lead.”

Kennedy’s message was “It’s time for some fresh blood. Yes, we’re doing ok, but we can do better and here’s how – use government to ensure equal educational opportunities, expanded health care and better energy infrastructure.”

My high school held a straw vote and I voted for Nixon, believing that his experience at the number 2 position in government better prepared him to lead than young Kennedy’s eight years as a Senator.

Some advisors urged Nixon to challenge the results of the 1960 election.

There was reason to believe there had been irregularities in Illinois’ political-machine-controlled election and Johnson’s friends in Texas were known for shenanigans.

A switch of these two states’ combined 51 electoral college votes would have reversed the results of the election.

Nixon declined, believing it would hurt the country to challenge the outcome of a Presidential election and that being tagged a sore loser would hurt his future political ambitions.

Republican party members, however, on his behalf, went to court to challenge the outcome of several states’ votes and demand recounts, including in Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey.

A Texas judge declined to hear a suit, saying he had no jurisdiction.

In Illinois, they found a slight 943 undercount of Nixon’s votes, far from the 4,500 needed to change the outcome, and they did not prove fraud.

No other state came close, except Hawaii, which was put in Nixon’s column after auditing errors were discovered, then back in Kennedy’s column with a recount.

Kennedy won the 1960 election. He was assassinated three years later.

Nixon won a two-term Presidency in 1968 and 1972.

He resigned in 1974, days ahead of impeachment proceedings.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers


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