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The Power of Television Images: The First Kennedy-Nixon Debate Revisited


  • James N. Druckman

    1. University of Minnesota
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    • I thank Scott Basinger, Adam Berinsky, Nicole Druckman, Paul Freedman, Fred Greenstein, Jennifer Jerit, Russell Mayer, Tali Mendelberg, Samuel Popkin, David Samuels, Michael Schudson, Roberta Sigel, Gordon Silverstein, John Transue, Justin Wedeking, and seminar participants at Princeton University and the University of Minnesota for helpful advice. I am especially grateful for advice and encouragement from the late Steven Chaffee. I also thank Justin Holmes and Jessica Kimpell for research assistance and acknowledge support from the Office of the Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School of the University of Minnesota.


How does television affect political behavior? I address this question by describing an experiment where participants either watched a televised version of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate or listened to an audio version. I used this debate in part because despite popular conceptions, there is no extant evidence that television images had any impact on audience reactions. I find that television images have significant effects—they affect overall debate evaluations, prime people to rely more on personality perceptions in their evaluations, and enhance what people learn. Television images matter in politics, and may have indeed played an important role in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.