Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fun with Kennedy/Nixon

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.

7 comments:

  1. It is a little odd, and yet, not so hard to understand. I am not one of those people who wring their hands and say that this or that thing was so much better back in the day, but hasn't there been something of a shift away from policy matters in political discourse to a politics of personality? If the most brilliant political mind who ever lived were born in 1955 with an unsightly mole or happened to be four-foot-eleven, that person would not qualify for national office today. I have little doubt that a group picture of the House of Representatives taken today would consist of more physically attractive people than the equivalent picture of 1935 or 1875, and that doesn't speak well for our politics. Kennedy v. Nixon was the first drop in the large bucket (which was quickly filled).

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  2. To pile on this point, though, I think a case could easily be made that BOTH television AND radio are far from our normal forms of interaction. Radio gives us the disembodied voice, of course, but television also changes how we perceive, and not just because of slick graphics. Even a normal shot of two people debating has movement, and camera changes, and these things trigger an "orientation response." We naturally focus our attention on things that move. In close communication, that's the lips, and you could do that for individual debate responses. But, camera cuts force that to be the whole screen, and any of the more modern debates features some minimum of graphics. Plus, contrast this to a speech attended in person, where you are likely to be too far away to notice lip movement and instead would orient towards your friend shifting in their seat, or a bird, or whatever. The written form is no different, as you actually have to engage your brain to figure out what these rather odd shapes on the page actually mean, whereas the language center of our brain is hard-wired for spoken language.
    I guess the point is: it's all different from direct human communication.

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  3. I read somewhere long ago that the consensus of the TV audience was that Kennedy won the debate, while that of the radio audience was that Nixon did.

    While it's possible that this could actually represent two different demographics, it's also possible - and, I believe, highly likely - that audio only lead to a greatly different perception.

    Nixon, besides being homely, was sweaty, scowling, and nervous in ways that did not come across on radio. Kennedy was highly photogenic and comfortable on screen. The differences between the two were stark on TV, but not radio.

    Whether audio only is the base line or not is irrelevant.

    Cheers!
    JzB

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  4. The myth of the radio audience preferring Nixon that year is the myth I find most interesting, enduring and annoying. The Druckman study cited by JB gets as some of the myth-making as does a recent article by David Greenberg over at Slate.

    Apparently one one such radio-only survey was taken in 1960, and that one sampled a mere 282 folks, hardly a large enough group to be scientific, and it also failed to correct for religious or political bias. I.e., the Protestant or GOP or rural radio listeners may have been overrepresented.

    Pretty slender stuff from which to create such a long-lasting myth, but there you are. And having someone like Teddy White get the ball rolling probably gave it an enormous nudge into a near-permanent place in our history textbooks.

    As for the tv debates, I'm inclined to believe Sorensen's first-hand observations and the campaign's in-house pollster, Harris, who found larger, more enthusiastic campaign crowds and a fair-sized bump in Kennedy's lead after the first debate. I'm also inclined to believe that the race tightened significantly in the final week when Ike finally got out on the stump for Dick.

    Iow, the debates mattered, but only for a while. What seemed to be the most important factor that year was religion -- working against JFK overall.

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  5. Is it possible that the debates have an indirect effect, in that they spurn media commentary which has an effect on many voters? A lot of what we think we know of past debates is based on the old media spin. A lot of it is superficial--Nixon's and Kennedy's looks, Reagan's one-liners, "you're no Jack Kennedy," Bush the Elder looking at his watch, Gore's eye rolls, McCain's pacing and "that one," Palin's winking, etc.--but the spin itself may influence the election. Are there studies to verify this?

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  6. but hasn't there been something of a shift away from policy matters in political discourse to a politics of personality? If the most brilliant political mind who ever lived were born in 1955 with an unsightly mole or happened to be four-foot-eleven, that person would not qualify for national office today.

    I think we also tend to overestimate substance in presidential politics pre-1960 as opposed to party-line adherence or the raw political emotions of the times, not to mention a lot of dirty campaigning. And as one of the studies of the '60 debates noted, there was plenty of substance in those televised debates, maybe more than most folks could quickly digest and understand. Both candidates were on top of the issues, and then some. It's just that one of them showed up actually looking like the sweaty, shifty-eyed dishonest pol he really was inside.

    But we have to also recall he was also the same rather odd and unattractive pol with a brilliant political mind who'd been thought to have successfully exploited the modern tv medium to his advantage before (Checkers speech, kitchen debate w/Khrushchev) and who would use it again successfully (and quite slickly and dishonestly) in 1968 to win the presidency (thx to producer Roger Ailes, now of Fox News, and studio host Bud Wilkinson).

    Is it possible that the debates have an indirect effect, in that they spurn media commentary which has an effect on many voters?

    (I think you mean "spawn"?) One of the neat and unique things about the 1960 televised debates is that they featured no post-debate pundit chatter on the tube about who won/lost. Just one hour (including opening statements up to eight minutes in length!) of backing and forthing with a panel of journalists throwing questions at them, then immediately back to regular network programming. So what was found in the polls (the scientific ones anyway) about who won have a purity that no polls thereafter could achieve.

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