| The Democratic primary debate of 1956 was the first to be televised. The two candidates agreed to debate early in the primary season, at which time they were running neck and neck. However, by the time the debate took place, Gov. Stevenson was running well ahead of Sen. Kefauver. Sixteen states had held their primaries by the time of the debate, leaving only four remaining. Political pundits of the time did not believe that the debate was successful.
Background. Gov. Stevenson challenged Sen. Kefauver to a debate and announced on 4/8/1956 that Kefauver had accepted. At that time, three primaries had been held. Kefauver won New Hampshire and Wisconsin without opposition, and he handily defeated Stevenson in an upset in Minnesota. The debate was originally scheduled for some time around 4/20/1956 but had to be re-scheduled several times. [NYT 4/9/1956]
The two campaigns finally agreed to hold the debate on 5/21/1956, eight days before the Florida primary. As it turned out, the Stevenson campaign was able to make some traction against Kefauver in the interim. The various states managed to avoid a direct Kefauver vs. Stevenson matchup in primaries other than in Alaska and the District of Columbia - and Stevenson won both contests handily. The Oregon primary was a test for both campaigns, since no one was listed on the ballot. Stevenson won a 60-39% victory there on write-ins. The debate had the potential to sustain the Stevenson bandwagon in Florida or stop it.
Debate Quick Facts
When: 10:00 to 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time, 5/21/1956
Where: WTVJ station, Miami FL (ABC affiliate)
Moderator: Quincy Howe (ABC)
Estimated audience: undetermined
Topic: Foreign policy; domestic policy
Format: Three minute opening statements; questions; five minute closing statements.
Newspaper photo of the 1956 Democratic debate.
Setting: The candidates sat behind a table. In front of each was a large microphone and a cardboard nameplate. WTVJ employees, reporters, and some Democratic activists observed (some in a glass-enclosed balcony).
It quickly became evident that Stevenson and Kefauver agreed on most campaign issues, including the upswing in bankruptcies, school integration, atomic energy, and foreign policy. The school integration issue was important, since both candidates accepted the Brown decision and wanted to ease the South into accepting it.
The only issue on which they did not agree was that of hydrogen bomb testing. Kefauver maintained that the USA needed to continue testing to keep pace with the Soviet military (since Stevenson had complained that Ike had allowed the Soviets to surpass the USA military). Stevenson replied that since hydrogen bomb testing could not be done in secret, each side would know if the other performed such a test. A moratorium would be a key step towards disarmament and would enhance the USA's prestige around the world.
The inability of the Democratic contenders to distinguish their differences was noted by many. Leading news organizations around the nation (such as Time magazine) did not even cover the event. Leonard W. Hall, chairman of the RNC, called the debate the "biggest flop of the year" and "tired, sorry, and uninspiring" [NYT 5/23/1956].
The two candidates did not spend a lot of time discussing the debate, either. Stevenson's reluctance to debate in his prior races was strengthened. Kefauver, realizing he needed a new campaign issue, called for increases in federal assistance programs for the elderly. Already by 1956, Florida and California (the two upcoming contested primaries) had become popular retirement locations [NYT 5/23/1956].
In general, Florida voters were apathetic about the primary. The state had just held its state primary, which was more closely followed by most voters. In fact, the vote fell by 50% from the state primary just three weeks earlier. The entire state Democratic leadership lined up behind a second Stevenson campaign. Bill Baggs of the Miami News said that Kefauver campaigned as if he could win votes just by shaking hands [Time, 5/28/1956].
The Florida primary was close. Stevenson came away with a 52-48% win, which entitled him to the lion's share of the 28 delegates at stake. It was enough to be called a win, and California voters decided to resolve the campaign one week later by handing Stevenson an overwhelming victory.