The 1960 Presidential Race between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy is considered by many political historians to be a landmark presidential contest. This race for the White House, exactly 60 years ago, marked a pivotal change in presidential election politics when the advent of television became the premier medium for political candidates.
John Kennedy was a 42-year-old, charismatic, democratic senator from Massachusetts. Richard Nixon was a veteran politico who was vice president under the popular war hero, President General Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower.
The presidential debate between Democrat Kennedy and Republican Nixon was to be televised nationwide. This was the first televised presidential debate. Television was a new phenomenon.
Kennedy understood the importance of the debate and the new medium of television. He took a full week off the campaign trail and went to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port and studied and prepared and was rested and tanned.
Nixon, on the other hand, campaigned nonstop, 18 hours a day up until the telecast. He was tired looking and also suffering from painful phlebitis. When he arrived at the NBC studios for the debate, he bumped his bad leg on the car door, and it flared up the phlebitis. He was in severe pain when he took the stage. However, the worst thing he did was fail to shave and he refused makeup. He had a heavy five o’clock shadow. In fact, he had not shaved since five o’clock that morning. He appeared tired and haggard and unshaven. It made him look very sinister. He glared menacingly into the camera and at Kennedy. In short, he was awful.
Nixon was used to radio and, in fact, those that listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won. However, those that watched on TV thought differently. Kennedy was tanned, relaxed, smiled and was handsome and charismatic. Kennedy won the election that night. The televised debate was the key. Therefore, 1960 marks the beginning of television being the way and means to victory in an election.
Folks, I am here to tell you it has not changed. Television is still the medium that drives the vote. It has been rumored and stated as fact that social media has taken over. But, it has not yet.
It is a known fact in politics that older people vote. That has not changed. It is folks my age, who are 60 and over, who vote and elect people. Young people under 40 simply do not vote. They really do not have time to vote in that stage of life. They are trying to raise a family, build a career and get children to soccer games or dance class after an eight-hour workday and then get dinner on the table.
There are very few 25-year old millennials who vote. They get their information off social media, but it does not translate into voting. Most of them are not even registered or know where they go to get registered or much less where their polling place is. We older people still watch TV and we vote.
As I peruse and study the campaign finance filings of the candidates running for office in Alabama this year, the fact is confirmed. Every major winning candidate for all the viable and primary races for U.S. Senate or Congress spent the bulk of their campaign money on television.
In looking back at the 1960 Presidential Race and comparing it to this year’s 2020 contest, reveals a stark transition in presidential politics. Under the Electoral College System, at that time there were 40 states in play and 10 states that were safe Republican or Democratic enclaves.
Today, it is just the opposite. There are 40 states that are predetermined to be safely solid either Red Republican states or Blue Democratic states. You might say the hay is in the barn in at least 40 of our United States. As I often say, if Mickey Mouse were the Republican nominee, he could carry Alabama; and if Donald Duck was the Democratic candidate, he would carry California.”
Our country is divided, politically, and divisively like never before in history along partisan lines. It is almost 50/50. Therefore, the key to victory is inspiring and firing up your base to vote.
If enthusiasm is any indication, then the needle is moving toward Donald Trump and the Republicans. Although the addition of Senator Kamala Harris to the Democratic ticket may enthuse African American female voters, who are the base of the Democratic Party.
Steve Flowers is a political columnist in Alabama.