It is generally held that television viewers felt Kennedy won the first debate, while those listening on radio, unaware of Nixon's improvised makeup, felt Nixon won.
That's probably overstated. Contemporary accounts suggest most viewers felt both candidates did well, while the single poll of radio listeners had a small sample possibly tilted toward pro-Nixon rural areas lacking TV reception.
There were three more Nixon-Kennedy debates that year and then no more until 1976. Since then, there have been 23 presidential debates and eight vice presidential debates, with three more presidentials this year, including last night's, and one more vice presidential.
Nixon and Kennedy debated in 1960 because they were running even in the polls and each thought he could benefit. They had offsetting advantages: Nixon was vice president in the popular Eisenhower administration, while Kennedy was the nominee of the party favored by most voters.
They each had a disadvantage, as well, as relatively young men in a nation whose presidents over the preceding 18 years had been in their 60s or 70s.
The frontrunners over the next 16 years saw no percentage in debating their opponents. In 1964 and 1972, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were overwhelming favorites and didn't want to give their opponents equal standing on a television set. And 1968 was a three-way race, in which Nixon initially led, but neither he nor Hubert Humphrey wanted to share the stage with the shrewd segregationist demagogue George Wallace.
In 1976, things were different. The incumbent president, Gerald Ford, was far behind in polls and Democrats had a 2-to-1 lead in party identification. He could hope that his superior knowledge would shine against a former one-term governor of Georgia.
As for Jimmy Carter, he was still a relative unknown who needed to prove his gravitas. And he had great confidence in his debating abilities.
Ironically, it was Ford's blooper in the second of their three debates -- he denied there was "Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" -- that may have cost him the election.
Other debate gaffes have become famous over the years: Jimmy Carter citing his 13-year-old daughter's concern about nuclear proliferation in 1980; Dan Quayle comparing himself with John Kennedy in 1988; Al Gore's loud sighs and menacing body language in 2000.
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