Did Nixon Win With Radio Listeners?

05/07/2007 09:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As long as we are on the subject of debates, I want to pick
a nit with something Joe Klein noted in his assessment
of the Republican debate last Friday:

Here's my gimmick: I listened to
the debate on radio. Not
that I wanted to...but I was on a forced march, driving north. I did this fully
aware that Nixon "won" the famous debate with JFK among radio
listeners as he was losing the presidency on TV.

My issue here that while entirely plausible, the evidence
that Nixon "won" among radio listeners is about as sketchy as the evidence that
Giuliani "won"
among Californians last week. I don't mean to pick on Joe Klein. Two Colorado State University
academics who reviewed the literature 20 years ago found that assertions Richard Nixon
winning among radio listeners "prevail in nearly all accounts of the first
Kennedy-Nixon debate" (Vancil and Pendell, 1987).

It turns out that aside from a few anecdotal accounts from
journalists, only one true survey attempted to gauge reactions to the debate
among both radio and television audiences. It involved a few questions asked on
a larger omnibus telephone survey conducted by Sindlinger and Company, and the
cross-tabulation by audience (television and radio) was published only once, in
the November 7, 1960 issue of Broadcasting
(from Kraus, 1996, p. 80):

Kennedy supporters may be grateful
that television was invented before the "Great Debates" took place. The
Sindlinger research showed that Mr. Kennedy was routed by Mr. Nixon on radio.

In answer to the question who won
the debates, 48.7% of the radio audience named Mr. Nixon and only 21% picked
Mr. Kennedy. Among those who watched the debates on tv, 30.2% named Mr. Kennedy
the winner and 28.6% picked Mr. Nixon.

According to the Sindlinger
projections, the total television audience was about 4 - ½ times the radio
audience - 270 millions viewers of 5v to 61.4 million listeners to radio.

That result, however, has a few problems, the most important
of which is the relatively small size and unrepresentative nature of the radio
audience. It amounted to must 282 responses from Sindlinger's sample of 2138
respondents, but the pollster apparently misplaced the original data, because no
information survived regarding the partisanship or vote preference of the radio
or television subgroups. That omission is critical because, as Steven Chafee, a
professor of communications at the University
of California Santa Barbara
has observed (2000, p. 334):

By 1960, those who could listen to
debates only on radio were far from a random lot. Situated for the most part in
remote rural areas, they were overwhelmingly Protestants and skeptical of
Kennedy as a Roman Catholic candidate.

of Minnesota
Political Scientist James N. Druckman, sums up (p.

Put another way, relative to
television viewers, radio listeners may have been predisposed to favor Nixon
over Kennedy. This lack of reliable causal evidence means that a prime example
of the power of television images may be nothing more than "telemythology"
(Schudson, 1995, 116).

Or is it? After all, much of the power of this debate
anecdote is that most observers and commentators thought Nixon lost the debate
to Kennedy on the basis of his appearance. It certainly seems plausible that
had the same debate occurred on radio, Nixon may have fared better.

Druckman took the matter one step further. In the article
quoted above, he describes an intriguing experiment conducted about five years
ago. He recruited 171 respondents - mostly students - who demonstrated little
or no knowledge of the Kennedy-Nixon debates. He then randomly divided the
subjects into two groups. Half watched a video tape of the first Kennedy-Nixon
debate and the other half listed to just the audio. All later answered
questions about Nixon and Kennedy, yielding the results Druckman had expected (pp.

Television images matter - they
prime people to rely more on personality perceptions when evaluating
candidates, which in turn, can affect overall evaluations. Images also enhance
political learning, at least among nonsophisticates. The experiment provides
evidence that Kennedy may have done better on television because of his
superior image.

So there we have it. A great example of how not to interpret
a post-debate survey, and a clever experiment by a social scientist that provides
a bit of evidence to support the underlying truth beneath the well established

References used after the jump (links are to subscriber only

Chaffee, Steven. 2000. "Book Review: Televised Presidential Debates and Public Policy." International
Journal of Public Opinion Research
12 (3): 333-335.

Druckman, James N. 2003. "The
Power of Television Images: The First Kennedy-Nixon Debate Revisited
." The Journal of Politics 65 (2): 559-571.

Kraus, Sidney. 1996. "Winners
of the First 1960 Televised Presidential Debate Between Kennedy and Nixon
Journal of Communication 46(4):

Schudson, Michael. 1995. The
Power of News.
Cambridge: Harvard University

Vancil, David L. and Sue D. Pendell, "The
Myth of Viewer Listener Disagreement in the First Kennedy-Nixon Debate
." Central States Speech Journal 38 (1):
pp. 16-27.