Even Richard Nixon‘s mother thought he was sick. After the first televised presidential debate in American history on Monday, Sept. 26, 1960 — a contest in which a legendarily tanned and cool John F. Kennedy appeared to best a legendarily wan and perspiring Richard M. Nixon — many observers called it even on points. Stylistically, however, Nixon lost so badly that Hannah Nixon reached out to her son.
“It is a devastating commentary on the nature of television as a political medium that what hurt me the most in the first debate was not the substance of the encounter between Kennedy and me, but the disadvantageous contrast in our physical appearances,” Nixon wrote in his 1978 memoir. “After the program ended, callers, including my mother, wanted to know if anything was wrong, because I did not look well.”
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In roughly the same way, even President Obama’s closest allies were left wondering what had happened to their man last week in Denver, and worrying about what he’ll do to recover through the rest of October. At least Nixon had the comfort of having fought Kennedy fairly even on the substance — a comfort that Obama does not have as the President prepares for his second and third rounds with a victorious Mitt Romney.
In political lore, the Kennedy-Nixon showdown decided the race for JFK. A closer look at the history of the fall of 1960 suggests to me, however, that the central lesson of the whole story of the Kennedy-Nixon debates is that such evenings tend to affirm, not transform, the trajectory of a presidential campaign. Which means the campaign is still Obama’s to lose.
This is in no way to take anything away from Romney’s brilliant performance. But I have long believed that the Republican ticket is running closer to the Democratic one than polls show. The effect of the Romney victory in Denver was to make his strengths as a candidate clearer to a greater number of people, and I continue to think that this election will be close to the very end.
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So any Republicans who believe that their man just pulled a JFK and will now march to the White House should pause, if briefly, to consider the details of the fall of 1960. Before the first debate, Kennedy led Nixon 51% to 49% in the Gallup survey. Three debates followed. In the second, Nixon, in the words of the New York Times that he quoted in his memoirs, “clearly made a comeback, came out ahead.” By the end of the series, Nixon believed that the debates “had little significant effect on the outcome of the election,” and indeed the final popular vote percentage, 49.7% to 49.6%, was not much changed from where the numbers had been before the two faced off.
This shouldn’t be read as a dismissal or a minimization of Romney’s resurgence. Quite the opposite: if I’m right that this race has been evenly divided despite the preponderance of the polls after the two conventions, then the Denver performance may come to be seen as the first public manifestation of a stronger-than-expected Republican challenge to the President. If Obama wins re-election, then the polls were more accurate than my private opinion. As in 1960, we are a divided country whose presidency is being sought by two ferociously competitive men — and that ferocious competition will, I think, grow only more so.