Imagine the setting. Soon after World War II, the United States had been engaged in a Cold War with the Communist Soviet Union, which then tightened its grip on all Eastern bloc states which were intent on proving they could hold their position against the capitalist might of the US. Cue next American presidential election. One candidate was young, with no experience in foreign affairs whereas the other was a two-term vice president and seasoned ‘cold warrior’. If you were to wager on which would win the presidential election and become the leader of the free world, the second was the far safer bet. Well, in 1960 if you put your money on the experienced form VP, you would have lost that bet. Why? Television!
Democrat John F. Kennedy captured the American presidency largely because of his performance during televised debates against his Republican opponent Richard M. Nixon. The opening, pivotal televised debate ushered in an era in which television was one of the major decisive factors for securing the presidency. September 26, 1960 marked the first live on-screen battle between two American presidential candidates. Historians generally agree that the Republican Nixon appeared to out-debate Kennedy, but he failed to outshine his youthful Democratic rival – who appeared much more natural and dashing on the small screen, while Nixon the pale, sweating and unshaven Nixon seemed ill-at-ease. Kennedy was ultimately judged by the public to be the debate’s winner.
Television has since played a critical role in determining who people vote for, allowing them to judge the candidates on their mannerisms, charisma, health and even hairstyle, as well as their arguments and policies. TV brought “front porch” campaigns, whereby groups of citizens travelled to a presidential candidate’s home to meet him and question him about the issues, to voters’ own homes. Overall, TV radically changed the approach to presidential and other major political campaigns forever, offering on-screen drama and the immediacy of live action.
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