3 Lessons That Both Candidates can Learn From the First Televised Debate

As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton prepare to take the stage for the first presidential debate of this campaign, we take a look back at a debate that redefined how candidates present themselves – the first televised debated between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Ironically, the debate took place exactly 56 years ago today. When Nixon and Kennedy took the stage on that fateful day, neither knew the impacts that it would have. With the stakes as big tonight as they were over five decades ago, the current candidates would benefit from lessons learned from that original debate telecast.

  1. Appearance matters, just ask the people who tuned into the Nixon vs. Kennedy debate. The television viewers overwhelmingly thought that Kennedy won but those who listened via radio thought the exact opposite was true. The reason there was such a discrepancy in opinion was because Kennedy was able to present himself in a more favorable light than Nixon. Kennedy appeared composed, healthy and at ease where as Nixon, still recovering from the flu, appeared frail, uncomposed and on edge in comparison.
  1. The first debate counts. A lot. It’s hard for a candidate to overcome a bad first debate performance, even if the subsequent performances are good. Nixon had strong performances at the other debates that year but the damage was already done. Kennedy was able to continue to ride his initial success and capitalize on it to eventually win the election.
  1. Televised debates should not be underestimated. The debate takes place on the biggest possible political stage, under the highest level of scrutiny. It is one of the most important moments of the campaign season. A good debate could potentially solidify the presidency, where as a bad debate could mean disaster for a campaign. In fact, after the 1960 election there wasn’t another debate for 16 years. Candidates were unwilling to participate because they saw how unpredictable yet influential debates could be.

With stakes this high it is no wonder that candidates pour endless time, energy and resources to preparing for debates. It seems only fitting that on the anniversary of such a pivotal moment in debate history, we’ll be witnessing a new moment unfold. Happy watching!