Mark Blumenthal | May 7, 2007
As long as we are on the subject of debates, I want to pick a nit with something Joe Klein noted in his assessment of the Republican debate last Friday:
Here's my gimmick: I listened to the debate on radio. Not that I wanted to...but I was on a forced march, driving north. I did this fully aware that Nixon "won" the famous debate with JFK among radio listeners as he was losing the presidency on TV.
My issue here that while entirely plausible, the evidence that Nixon "won" among radio listeners is about as sketchy as the evidence that Giuliani "won" among Californians last week. I don't mean to pick on Joe Klein. Two Colorado State University academics who reviewed the literature 20 years ago found that assertions Richard Nixon winning among radio listeners "prevail in nearly all accounts of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate" (Vancil and Pendell, 1987).
It turns out that aside from a few anecdotal accounts from journalists, only one true survey attempted to gauge reactions to the debate among both radio and television audiences. It involved a few questions asked on a larger omnibus telephone survey conducted by Sindlinger and Company, and the cross-tabulation by audience (television and radio) was published only once, in the November 7, 1960 issue of Broadcasting (from Kraus, 1996, p. 80):
Kennedy supporters may be grateful that television was invented before the "Great Debates" took place. The Sindlinger research showed that Mr. Kennedy was routed by Mr. Nixon on radio.
In answer to the question who won the debates, 48.7% of the radio audience named Mr. Nixon and only 21% picked Mr. Kennedy. Among those who watched the debates on tv, 30.2% named Mr. Kennedy the winner and 28.6% picked Mr. Nixon.
According to the Sindlinger projections, the total television audience was about 4 - ½ times the radio audience - 270 millions viewers of 5v to 61.4 million listeners to radio.
That result, however, has a few problems, the most important of which is the relatively small size and unrepresentative nature of the radio audience. It amounted to must 282 responses from Sindlinger's sample of 2138 respondents, but the pollster apparently misplaced the original data, because no information survived regarding the partisanship or vote preference of the radio or television subgroups. That omission is critical because, as Steven Chafee, a professor of communications at the University of California Santa Barbara has observed (2000, p. 334):
By 1960, those who could listen to debates only on radio were far from a random lot. Situated for the most part in remote rural areas, they were overwhelmingly Protestants and skeptical of Kennedy as a Roman Catholic candidate.
University of Minnesota Political Scientist James N. Druckman, sums up (p. 563):
Put another way, relative to television viewers, radio listeners may have been predisposed to favor Nixon over Kennedy. This lack of reliable causal evidence means that a prime example of the power of television images may be nothing more than "telemythology" (Schudson, 1995, 116).
Or is it? After all, much of the power of this debate anecdote is that most observers and commentators thought Nixon lost the debate to Kennedy on the basis of his appearance. It certainly seems plausible that had the same debate occurred on radio, Nixon may have fared better.
Druckman took the matter one step further. In the article quoted above, he describes an intriguing experiment conducted about five years ago. He recruited 171 respondents - mostly students - who demonstrated little or no knowledge of the Kennedy-Nixon debates. He then randomly divided the subjects into two groups. Half watched a video tape of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate and the other half listed to just the audio. All later answered questions about Nixon and Kennedy, yielding the results Druckman had expected (pp. 569-570):
Television images matter - they prime people to rely more on personality perceptions when evaluating candidates, which in turn, can affect overall evaluations. Images also enhance political learning, at least among nonsophisticates. The experiment provides evidence that Kennedy may have done better on television because of his superior image.
So there we have it. A great example of how not to interpret a post-debate survey, and a clever experiment by a social scientist that provides a bit of evidence to support the underlying truth beneath the well established "telemyth."
References used after the jump (links are to subscriber only databases).
Chaffee, Steven. 2000. "Book Review: Televised Presidential Debates and Public Policy." International Journal of Public Opinion Research 12 (3): 333-335.
Druckman, James N. 2003. "The Power of Television Images: The First Kennedy-Nixon Debate Revisited." The Journal of Politics 65 (2): 559-571.
Kraus, Sidney. 1996. "Winners of the First 1960 Televised Presidential Debate Between Kennedy and Nixon." Journal of Communication 46(4): 78-96.
Schudson, Michael. 1995. The Power of News. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Vancil, David L. and Sue D. Pendell, "The Myth of Viewer Listener Disagreement in the First Kennedy-Nixon Debate." Central States Speech Journal 38 (1): pp. 16-27.