High-stakes debates put candidates in the hot seat. But are they helpful to voters?

When it aired on Sept. 26, 1960, the Kennedy-Nixon debate was the most watched event in the history of television. It gave birth to one of the most enduring folktales about the U.S. presidency: that John Kennedy won the debate because he looked better, thus ushering in an age when TV image took precedence over substance in American politics.

“This interpretation has been repeated so many times that this particular narrative about this particular event isn’t just a story about the modern Presidency. It’s become the story,” my co-producer Hal Hansen wrote in his 2012 book, “Why Presidents Win.” “It’s become part of our cherished heritage of half-true stories we all know and tell without actually studying the facts.”

Students invited to study the facts as laid out in this Retro Report video will learn that there is little evidence to support the story. There is an anecdote about Nixon’s refusal to wear full make-up, sure, and some stories about radio listeners’ impression that Nixon won the debate. But a thorough investigation shows that the evidence is thin.

Constructive Fights

So if Kennedy’s debate performance managed to give him an edge in an election decided by fewer than 200,000 votes, what actually happened on that stage?

In his book, Hansen argued that the debate offered a real-life spectacle that gave Americans an unscripted glimpse of the candidates’ respective characters, because viewers saw them tested by conflict. Just as characterization in movies or novels requires conflict as a way of revealing character, the extreme pressure and conflict in debates can be more useful in revealing the character of the candidates than TV ads or scripted campaign speeches. “This is what happens in a debate,” Hansen wrote. “We know a little something about the candidates, but then we put them onto a stage and make them fight, and then we feel like we have a better sense of who they are.”

The debates and the circus-like atmosphere of news coverage has drawn plenty of justified criticism over the years. But some scholars of elections say the memorable moments that come out of debates and the impressions left with voters afterward all serve a substantive purpose.

“The debates give voters something that no other political mechanism does,” former Northeastern University professor Alan Schroeder told co-producer Meral Agish when she interviewed him for our story.

“Anything can happen, and history shows that there are a lot of moments along the way where the candidates were thrown off their game,” Schroeder said. “We get at least a little peek into the window of how these people operate and how they think, and how they communicate. That’s a rare and precious thing.”

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