Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the first television debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy.  In Slate, David Greenberg writes about the familiar claim that JFK won the debate among those who saw the debate on TV while RN won among those who only heard it on the radio.  Greenberg notes that only one survey actually broke radio listeners out as a separate group.  Albert E. Sindlinger’s market research firm found Nixon winning among radio listeners 43 percent to 20 percent and Kennedy winning among TV watchers, 28 percent to 19 percent. From this poll, some have concluded that JFK won on appearance, not substance.  By itself, as Greenberg correctly says, this poll does not provide strong evidence for that conclusion.  The radio subsample was small and, in any event, radio listeners may well have been predisposed to back RN in the first place.

So can we reject the idea that images tipped opinions in JFK’s favor?  Not quite.  Several years ago, political scientist James N. Druckman tested the idea with a rigorous experiment.  He randomly assigned participants into two groups:  one saw a replay of the debate on television, while the other heard an audio version.  (He limited participation to people without knowledge of the debates or the controversy over the purported TV effect.)  Pre-test and post-test questionnaires measured their attitudes.  Druckman found  that the television group was indeed significantly more likely than the audio group to rate JFK as the winner.

This is compelling evidence that television-by enhancing the impact of image-can make a difference in overall candidate (debater) evaluations. It also is the first clear empirical evidence consistent with the widespread assertion of viewer-listener disagreement in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate. In sum, television images have an independent effect on individuals’ political judgments: they elevate the importance of perceived personality factors, which can in turn alter overall evaluations.

This finding does not prove the “JFK won on image” theory once and for all.  One confounding element is that Nixon did not perform as well on substance as he could have:  trying to shed his “attack dog” image, he was overly defensive and deferential at times.  Yet Druckman’s study does suggest that visuals may have been a distinct asset for JFK.

Here is the citation for the study: James N. Druckman, “The Power of Television Images: The First Kennedy-Nixon Debate Revisited,” The Journal of Politics 65 (May, 2003): 559-571.