The 1960 Presidential Election as the First Modern Campaign

Essay, 2015

9 Pages, Grade: 2,5


Lioba Frings

The 1960 Presidential Election as the First Modern Campaign


The 1960 presidential election was in many ways different from the elections in previous decades and it is even claimed that “presidential politics in the United States has undergone a revolution since 1960”[1] and also that “these debates have become an established feature of presidential elections ever since”[2]. These imm ense changes regarding the general approach, the content and the use of media during the campaign and elections as well as the shift in focusing on image rather than on content seem to make this campaign the first modern one. Alongside changes in the Constitution of the United States of America whereby the Twenty-second Amendment, ratified in 1951, prohibited the president of the previous two terms Dwight D. Eisenhower “from running for a third term”[3] the major innovation was the use of television as the predominant mass medium in John F. Kennedy’s successful presidential campaign, less in the one of Richard Nixon, who rather focused on classic strategies, which will be discussed later on. With the two major presidential candidates debating on television and being broadcasted also via radio this election can surely be described as the first modern campaign for an election in the United States.

Mass Media Usage During the 1960 Campaign

The usage of television, “which first had a real impact in the 1960 campaign”[4] and was then considered to be “the new medium of political communication”[5], as the primary mass medium has reached a total of 87 percent of the population during the presidential campaign in 1960[6]. The second most prominent medium during this campaign and election were newspapers with 80 percent, followed by the radio with 42 percent and magazines with 41 percent[7]. Compared to the previous campaigns in 1952 and 1956 with 51 and 74 percent[8] of the American population using the medium of television and the following campaigns in 1964 and 1968 with both 89 percent[9], the usage of television as the predominant mass medium has clearly increased. Television obviously already gained in importance since 1952 and increased even more after the successful usage during the 1960 presidential election whereafter “the presidential candidates spent almost four times as much for television in 1968 as they had in 1956”[10].

As seen in the statistics above the 1960 presidential election was not the first election in which the medium of television was of great importance. During the election in 1952 competitors and presidential nominees Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson and even Richard Nixon, who ran for the position of the vice-president and successfully became vice president under Eisenhower, made use of this mass medium.

In that year’s presidential campaign “the most effective use of television was the ‘Checkers’ speech of Republican vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon”[11] , which constrasts with his performance on television during his live debate with Kennedy. Back then Nixon explained why “he had accepted an 18,235 expense fund from 76 California supporters” and thereby “muted demands that he be dropped out from the ticket”[12]. His speech was viewed by roughly 25 million people[13]. During his whistle-stopping in 1960 only 10 million people saw him, which proves that even Nixon should have drawn on more modern campaign techniques, which he obviously did before but for whatever reason did not continue during his presidential candidature. Another speech by Nixon via television that went well was the “1959 ‘kitchen debate’ with Khrushchev”[14]. “Viewed by the politicians as the medium of major importance since 1960, television has been perceived as an impartial and widely-reaching agency”[15] and this interest on the increasingly important role of any kind of mass media in American politics and campaigning is also a result of Kennedy’s victory over Nixon in the 1960 election[16] and television is seen to be of major importance and, for that matter, “as an impartial and widely-reaching agency”[17] since this important first usage of television for campaigning in 1960.

Comparing Kennedy’s and Nixon’s Campaigning Strategies

To reach and persuade most of the American population Nixon and Kennedy had different approaches. While Nixon “insisted on touching down his jet plane in all the 50 states, eventually reaching Alaska when he might have been seeking to hold Ohio against challenger John F. Kennedy”[18], Kennedy concentrated on less than all of the 50 states and focused on the live debate on television.

Nixon clearly drew on the political campaigning strategy of whistle-stopping, whereby he toured and held speacher throughout the United States, which was, in the end, not as successful as Kennedy’s focus on television. Even though during Nixon’s whistle-stopping about 10 million Americans saw him[19] his campaign was not as successful as the one of his competitor.

“Television was in; whistle-stopping was out; the print media were in eclipse”[20], which means Kennedy was far more modern in his chosen style of campaigning than his opponent. However, also in Kennedy’s case whistle-stopping still was an important part of the campaign and electoral process even though a new medium slowly took over. Although Nixon agreed on debating on television with Kennedy it seems like Nixon’s campaign was oldfashioned, if not even outdated, compared to Kennedy and his strategy. Therefore it could be argued that only John F. Kennedy as well as the overall increasing usage of television in American daily life led to the 1960 election being the first modern campaign and his competitor only took part in it.

The Kennedy-Nixon Debate on Television

The 1960 television debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were the first live debates between presidential candidates[21] and the first one “took place in WBBM-TV’s Studio One in Chicago[22] on September 26. In total there were four debates[23]. “[…] Nearly 400 newspapermen […] swarmed over the studio after the departure of the candidates [holding the view that] television had added a new and critically important element to the campaign”[24] and indeed it did for both of the candidates and this whole campaigning via television during that year had great impact on the following campaigns.

The fact that it was the first television debate between two presidential candidates also drew a lot of the American’s attention to this. Furthermore, the politicians and future candidates realized that television is a medium that gains in importance for any political matters, especially though during elections. The great impact of the strategic use of television in Kennedy’s case also indicates that this campaign can be described as the first modern one. John F. Kennedy’s private life including his marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy was also increasingly taken into account when it comes to his image as a politician. The highly glamorous and elegant image that his wife incorporated drew a new kind of attention on both of them.


[1] Carl P. Leubsdorf, ‘The Reporter and the Presidential Candidate’,The Annals of the American Academy of Politicaland Social Science, 427 (September, 1976) 1-11 (1).

[2] David McKay,American Politics and Society, 8th edn (Chichester, 2013), 147.

[3] Peter J. Ling,John F. Kennedy(London, 2013), 58.

[4] ‘The Reporter and the Presidential Candidate’, 2.

[5] Sig Mickelson, ‘The Candidate in the Living Room’,The Annals of the American Academy of Political and SocialScience, 427 (September, 1976) 23-32 (23).

[6] John P. Robinson, ‘The Press and the Voter’,The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 427 (September, 1976) 95-103 (97).

[7] ‘The Press and the Voter’, 97.

[8] ‘The Press and the Voter’, 97.

[9] ‘The Press and the Voter’, 97.

[10] Edwin Emery, ‘Changing Role of the Mass Media in American Politics’,The Annals of the American Academy ofPolitical and Social Sciences,427 (September 1976) 84-94 (93).

[11] ‘Changing Role of the Mass Media’, 91.

[12] ‘Changing Role of the Mass Media’, 91.

[13] see Changing Role of the Mass Media’, 91.

[14]John F. Kennedy,81.

[15] ‘Changing Role of the Mass Media’, 90.

[16] see ‘Changing Role of the Mass Media’, 86.

[17] ‘Changing Role of the Mass Media’, 90.

[18] ‘Changing Role of the Mass Media’, 86.

[19] see ‘Changing Role of the Mass Media’, 86.

[20] ‘Changing Role of the Mass Media’, 86.

[21] seeAmerican Politics and Society, 147.

[22] ‘The Candidate in the Living Room’, 26.

[23] John W. Ellsworth, ‘Rationality and Campaigning: A Content Analysis of the 1960 Presidential Campaign Debates’,The Western Political Quarterly, 18.4 (December, 1965) 794-802 (796).

[24] ‘The Candidate in the Living Room’, 26.

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The 1960 Presidential Election as the First Modern Campaign
Swansea University
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kennedy, jfk, politics, american studies
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Lioba Frings (Author), 2015, The 1960 Presidential Election as the First Modern Campaign, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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