In 1960, Kennedy beat Nixon in the first televised debate because he looked and sounded good, while Nixon appeared sweaty and disheveled. This debate ushered in a new era of politics by emphasizing appearance over content.
Sixty years later, our politicians do not only understand the impact of their media persona: they intensify it to win elections.
“He [Trump] said some horrible horrible things during his campaign, but he got attention because of it,” President of Eckerd College Democrats Amanda Scribner said. “I think being bombastic, having clapbacks and being sensational is how someone’s going to win the  election, unfortunately.”
Trump received nonstop media coverage during his campaign due to the shock value of his statements. His trademark name calling, racist rhetoric towards Latin-American immigrants and denial of verifiable, universally accepted facts were so unprecedented that they were commodified by every major news outlet.
This airtime boosted his name recognition and status all the way to the Oval Office, because no matter what we thought of him, America could not get enough of TRUMP 2016. Now, other politicians are attempting to recreate it.
“He [Trump] was successful, so people want to try and simulate that formula. But also he has changed the culture and the culture is just becoming more and more provocative,” Associate Professor of Communication James Janack said.
Now, as the democratic presidential candidates thin out, and the debate stages are as glossy as ever, the discussions focus more on popularity than policy.
“Even with the three hour debate and 10 candidates, we did not dive as deep into policy as the American public deserves,” Co-Coordinator of PIRG’s New Voters Project William Shedden said. “But I saw a recent poll that said 45% of America is currently tuned into the 2020 presidential election, which is much higher than any other election at this point.”
For younger people the televised format of political debate is nothing new, and the idea of politics being a popularity contest is redundantly accurate. The 2016 election clarified all of this and numbed many young voters to the image obsessed nature of political media coverage, but also encouraged many to tune in and get involved. Now, the only thing left to do is learn to navigate the simulacra.
During the Sept. 12 democratic debate, Julian Castro called out Joe Biden for short term memory loss regarding his own speaking point (a claim that was ranked untrue by PolitiFact). Now, politically engaged viewers must decide whether it’s a valid criticism or a calculated stunt meant to echo Kamala Harris’ attack on Biden in earlier debates.
Similarly, when Bernie Sanders disregards a legitimate inquiry from Vice News on the uniqueness of his policy as a “media question,” one must ask themselves: Why? Does Sanders truly believe that Vice was out to get him, or is he as pessimistic about the free press as Trump is?
Political theatre is a consequence of televised debate; it’s also intensified by the constant buzz on social media. While its entertaining qualities may be getting more people interested in politics as a whole, it is also important to be aware of how the form of political discourse influences its content. And when news anchors focus on how Andrew Yang did not wear a tie at the debate, please ignore them and read his website. Because at the end of the day, clothes and makeup don’t write policy: people do.