Maybe the TV Debates Won't Matter

NO presidential debate, save for the Nixon-Kennedy encounter in 1960, has really turned a contest around. And such a turnaround isn't likely this year either.

To be a seminal event, a presidential debate must put the candidates in a whole new light. In 1960 that happened.

Back then the state of the television art was so primitive that the public wasn't, as it is today, being bombarded daily with pictures of the campaigning candidates as they move around the country. So it was possible in those beginning days of television for a candidate to be "discovered" in a fall debate, when many viewers from coast to coast were sizing up the nominees for the first time.

President Lyndon Johnson didn't debate his challenger, Barry Goldwater. Richard Nixon blamed his 1960 defeat on that first TV debate and wouldn't ever try it again. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford debated three times, and while Mr. Ford damaged himself in one encounter by what was widely regarded as a misstatement, it wasn't a monumental blunder - nothing that turned the race around. Indeed, most observers rated the two candidates as - overall - coming out about even in these match-ups.

But before these two men engaged in the TV confrontations, the general public knew both of them very well. It had seen hundreds of pictures of them on television and heard them state their positions again and again. There was no way that the voters could "discover" Mr. Carter the way they did John Kennedy in 1960.

To put all this another way, the candidate who has been ahead in the polls at debate time has never been overtaken as a result of that event - except for Mr. Nixon. Ronald Reagan was ahead of Carter in 1980, and while his "There you go again" quip may have unsettled Carter, it didn't change things. Mr. Reagan remained ahead.

In 1984, Reagan merely strengthened his lead over Walter Mondale in their debates. That's what happened in the George Bush-Michael Dukakis debates. Mr. Dukakis self-destructed before debate time.

What 1960 did, however, was to build an expectation among the voters - encouraged by the media - that a presidential debate holds the possibility of turning a loser into a winner and vice-versa. Of course, it still could happen. But it hasn't. And it isn't at all likely.

Of course, debates are held for more than their so-called "horse-race" aspect. They are supposed to provide enlightenment to the voters. Perhaps they do. But with hardly a day going by without President Bush and Bill Clinton being interviewed on TV (they were back-to-back on Tom Brokaw's show the other evening), the public is getting a good idea of where they stand.

Even so, there is always the possibility that one of the debaters might damage himself fatally in these encounters, with millions watching.

Some observers insist that is what happened to Nixon in 1960. They assert that Nixon's dour appearance resulted from a botched makeup job and caused voters to drop him for Mr. Kennedy.

I have always believed that it was the "discovery" of Kennedy by the voters that night that turned the contest around. Until then, they hadn't gotten to know the Massachusetts senator. They had seen him a bit on TV - that's all. Indeed, Kennedy was bogged down by a lot of negative stories - about the possible influence of his father and the Roman Catholic church if he became president.

Nixon was heralded as a champion debater. Even detractors who called him "tricky Dick" acknowledged he would lambast Kennedy.

So it was that the relatively "unknown" Kennedy was able to surprise the TV viewers by standing up to Nixon and exhibiting that he was particularly fast on his feet - with jab or quip.

So it was that the voters discovered Kennedy in that debate and liked what they saw - a young, gutsy guy with such an appealing grin.

Nixon didn't really lose the debate on points. Those who heard it on radio thought he won. In fact, some academicians who judged the debate on radio gave Nixon the victory.

But Kennedy won the debate where it counted - on TV. He was discovered there. That isn't likely to happen again though: Saturation campaign coverage has changed everything.

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