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Who Won the 1960 Debates – On Radio?
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, Oct. 6, 2000

Question: It is often stated that in the 1960 presidential debates, people who watched on television believed Kennedy won, and people who listened on radio believed Nixon won. Was there ever a study conducted on this or is it political folklore? -- Andrew Steinberg, Cincinnati, Ohio

Debates may have made the difference in 1960. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
Answer: What you have laid out has been accepted as truth for four decades. But a new book, Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV, dismisses it as folklore. Alan Schroeder writes that this theory was originally offered by Atlanta Constitution publisher Ralph McGill, who conducted an "informal experiment" in 1960 in which he arranged for a "number of persons" to listen to the first Kennedy-Nixon debate on radio to see if they would react differently than the TV viewers. McGill concluded, "It is interesting to report they unanimously thought Mr. Nixon had the better of it." But Schroeder writes that McGill's "poll" reflected nothing more than the "casual approach the news media of 1960 took toward the audience reaction story." In fact, Schroeder adds, there was "more scientific data to the contrary."

Schroeder's book, by the way, is far and away the best compilation I've ever come across on the history of presidential debates. It is published by Columbia University Press.

Question: If the electoral college fails to elect a president and the decision is sent to the House of Representatives, which "House" decides? Does the old House reconvene, or is it decided by the House just selected in the November elections? -- Ron Freiwald, St. Louis, Mo.

Answer: The chore falls to the newly elected House. That was not always the case, however. Prior to the ratification of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, it was the lame-duck Congress who would make the decision. This nearly proved to be the undoing for Thomas Jefferson in 1800. When the election that year produced a deadlocked electoral college, it went to the lame-duck Federalist House, which despised Jefferson. Ultimately Jefferson won, but it took 36 ballots for the House to arrive at its decision.

The House decided only one other presidential election – the four-way contest in 1824, which went to John Quincy Adams.

Question: I know that if the election is decided in the House, each state gets one vote. What would happen if this election ended up in a tie, with each candidate winning the votes of 25 states? Also, while the House would elect the president, the Senate would elect the vice president. So if there were a tie in the electoral college and Democrats win the House but Republicans hold onto the Senate, most likely Al Gore would be elected president but Dick Cheney would win the vice presidency. That would make for a very contentious next four years, to say the least. -- Eric Nyman, Ishpeming, Mich.

Answer: The presidential election goes to the House if no candidate gets an electoral-college majority, and that would happen if there were more than two candidates in the race. As to your question about a deadlocked House, the members would simply keep voting until a president is chosen; until that time, the vice president-elect would act as president. And yes, the scenario you lay out is correct: If there were a tie in the electoral college and the Democrats won the House but the Republicans retained the Senate, it theoretically could result in a Gore-Cheney administration.

Question: How many "bolting" or "faithless" electors – electors who did not vote for the person to whom they had been pledged – have there been in the 20th century, if any? -- Valerie J. Simms, Chicago, Ill.

Answer: One potential problem with the way we choose our presidents is that only 20 states legally bind the electors to vote for the candidates they are ostensibly supporting. In theory, when these electors meet in their state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, they could vote for whomever they decide. But of the more than 17,000 electors who have been chosen since the days of George Washington, only nine have been "faithless," seven of which came in the 20th century:

• 1948, when a Harry Truman elector in Tennessee voted instead for States Rights Democrat Strom Thurmond;
• 1956, when an Adlai Stevenson elector in Alabama voted for a local judge named Walter Jones;
• 1960, when a Richard Nixon elector in Oklahoma voted for Sen. Harry Byrd (D-Va.);
• 1968, when a Nixon elector in North Carolina voted for American Independent Party nominee George Wallace;
• 1972, when a Nixon elector in Virginia voted for Libertarian Party nominee John Hospers;
• 1976, when a Gerald Ford elector in Washington voted for former Gov. Ronald Reagan (R-Calif.); and
• 1988, when a Michael Dukakis elector in West Virginia voted for Dukakis's running mate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas).

Question: I have heard rumors that George W. Bush is considering replacing Dick Cheney with either John McCain or Colin Powell due to Cheney's lack of popularity. If he does so, he will cite medical reasons. Is this true? If it is, it would be despicable. -- Patrick Sherman, Los Angeles, Calif.

Answer: There is nothing at all to this rumor, and it's my understanding that it is part of an organized e-mail campaign being distributed by some Democrats. I'm not sure why it's being passed around, and less sure why it's being taken seriously, but I must have received 50 e-mails on this. Almost every one advises that the public need be alerted to this horrific plot, repeating the scenario almost word for word.

Not to give it any credence, but for one thing it makes absolutely no sense to cite "medical reasons" and then replace Cheney with John McCain, who has serious health problems of his own. And even if for argument's sake there once was a movement afoot to dump Cheney, I would suspect that it has disappeared, given Cheney's superb performance at the recent vice-presidential debate in Danville, Ky. Ultimately, of course, voters are going to make their decision on who they want as their president – not vice president – for the next four years.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.

© Copyright 2000 Ken Rudin

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