John Sides has a good item up today responding to Ted Sorenson's op-ed from Sunday about the Nixon/Kennedy debates. I have a partial not-quite-dissent, and a comment. The former is about the question of whether the debates affected the election results. John cites a study of tracking polls that shows no immediate effect from the debate, and I agree with him that "Debates rarely lead to significant changes in public opinion about the candidates. They occur too late, and too many people have already made up their minds." Still...we're talking about a very close election here, and it seems not entirely implausible to me that a handful of voters could have flipped. So, while I don't exactly disagree, I wouldn't want to say anything too strong about it (as opposed, say, to the 1980 or 1984 elections, in which the idea that one-liners from Ronald Reagan were responsible for landslide results is just silly). Of course, to say that any one particular thing "made the difference" in a very close race is a bit of a trick, since by that standard lots of factors made the difference. I'm just not completely ready to say that the debates weren't one of those...I guess I have a bit less confidence than John does about whether this myth is really a myth.
As for the comment: John quotes a study of differing perceptions of the debate by Jamie Druckman, who says: "This is compelling evidence that television-by enhancing the impact of image-can make a difference in overall candidate (debater) evaluations." Isn't that a bit odd? It seems to me that radio -- by eliminating visual cues found in traditional human communication -- would be the thing that was the "difference" (I can see people thinking otherwise in 1960, but this is a study conducted and published a few years ago). So, interesting study, and I don't think that the way its framed should affect the results (which are that, indeed, Kennedy did better in the TV version than the radio version), but I just thing it's a bit strange for anyone after, say, 1955, to think of audio-only as normal and ask how adding video changes things.