Political Debates: Advising a Candidate

Students analyze excerpts from the first Kennedy-Nixon debate (September 26, 1960) and a memo assessing the debate from one of Kennedy's advisers. They then use the memo as a model as they watch a current political debate to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate they support.

About this Resource

Grade Level
Time Required
1-2 hours
Curricular Resource Type
Lesson Plans & Activities
Curricular Resource Subject Area
Civics and US Government
US History
Curricular Resource Topic
Campaign, Election, & Inauguration
Civic Education and Engagement
Persuasive Writing and Speaking
Curricular Standards
Common Core
C3 Framework for Social Studies
National History Standards (UCLA)
National Council of Teachers of English
Massachusetts Framework - English Language Arts
Massachusetts Framework - History and Social Science

Download this lesson plan, including handouts, as a pdf.



Political debates are an important part of the election process, whether on the local, state or national level. On September 26, 1960, an estimated seventy million Americans, about 2/3 of the electorate, watched Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon face each other in the first live televised presidential debate.

After the debate, Kennedy turned to his advisors for an analysis and feedback. Clark Clifford, a Kennedy family attorney and presidential advisor, sent his assessment of the debate to JFK in a memo, offering advice to the candidate.

In this lesson plan, students analyze excerpts from the first debate and Clifford’s memo. They then identify a candidate they support in a current election and, using the Clifford memo as a model, watch a political debate to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate and provide written advice to him or her for future debates.

Essential Question

In what ways are voters persuaded to support a particular candidate?


Students will be able to:

  • analyze a primary source.
  • consider what makes a candidate a “winner” or “loser” in a debate.
  • determine what issues are important to the student in an upcoming election.
  • select a candidate they think most aligns with their views of the issues.
  • watch a debate and evaluate the performance of the candidates.
  • write a memo to their chosen candidate giving him or her advice on how to improve his/her performance for a future debate.

Connections to Curriculum (Standards)

National Civics and History
Center for Civic Education: V (E) How can citizens take part in civic life?
National Center for History in the Schools: Era 9, 3B Examine the role of the media in the election of 1960.

Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework – American Government
Topic 4 (2) Research the platforms of political parties and candidates for state or national government and analyze data on campaign financing, advertising, and voter demographics, to draw conclusions about how citizens in the United States participate in public elections.


Prior Knowledge and Skills

Students should know how to analyze a piece of text. They also should have some knowledge of current issues and events on a local, state, and national level.

Historical Background and Context

Cold War concerns permeated this debate, which was focused on domestic issues. As the incumbent Vice President, Nixon highlighted the successes of the Eisenhower years while Kennedy attempted to show its failings. Nixon compared the record of the Eisenhower Administration with the previous Democratic administration of Truman to show that the US had prospered over the Eisenhower years. He contrasted his proposals for education, health and housing which would require less government spending with Kennedy’s proposals which he believed relied too much on the federal government and would suppress the “creative energies” of Americans. Kennedy criticized the untapped manufacturing and scientific potential of the US and inefficiencies in agricultural policies during the previous seven years as well as expressing concern about racial discrimination that denied opportunities for African Americans and Latinos. Both debaters responded to questions about their experience and their ability and work with Congress.



  1. Have students read JFK in History: Campaign of 1960 to provide historical background on the debates.
  2. Have students read excerpts from the September 26, 1960 debate. (The entire debate is available here.)
  3. Provide students with a Clark M. Clifford memo to Kennedy dated September 27, 1960.
  4. Discuss the following:
    a. What points did Clifford make in writing that Kennedy was “the winner”? (Kennedy was concise, convincing, and kept Nixon on the defensive)
    b. Brainstorm how a candidate can be convincing, and how he/she may keep the other candidate on the defensive.
    c. What were Clifford’s main concerns? (Kennedy should make sure voters know that his political goals are different from Nixon’s; he needs to differentiate himself; and he needs to show more personal warmth.)
    d. Why would it be important for the challenger to differentiate his goals from the incumbent administration?
    e. What were Clifford’s suggestions for dealing with these concerns? (Kennedy should be specific in bringing up the differences in their goals; he should bring up his discussions with ordinary people and his contacts with Navy servicemen to show he understands the concerns of average Americans.)
  5. Use Clifford’s concerns and suggestions as you discuss with your students the important attributes that make a candidate a “winner” of a debate.
  6. Brainstorm the issues in an upcoming election in your area. Take notes of students' responses and share the notes with them. Have students discuss where they stand on the issues.
  7. Have students research where the candidates stand on these issues, and have them write a one-page paper describing which candidate’s views are most compatible with their own and why.


For homework, have students watch a political debate, filling in a “score sheet” handout to help them evaluate the debate. (We have suggested a few attributes in the handout, but you should add your own based on your previous brainstorming with students.) Have them use their “score sheet” to write a memo to their chosen candidate in the style of Clark Clifford noting:

  • who they think “won” the debate.
  • what worked or didn’t work for their candidate.
  • how their candidate can help to improve his/her image.
  • what their candidate can do to better persuade voters that he/she is the right choice for them.

Encourage students to use their memo as a way to give specific help to their candidate, not as an opportunity to denigrate the other candidate.

Connections to Curriculum (Standards)

National History Standards -US History, Era 9: Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)

  • Standard 3: Domestic policies after World War II

Common Core State Standards

  • ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language
  • ELA – Reading Informational Texts, Writing, Speaking and Listening, Language, and Literacy in History/Social Studies for grades 9-10 and 11-12

C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • Discipline 2 - Applying disciplinary concepts and tools (History and Civics)
  • Discipline 3 - Evaluating sources and using evidence
  • Discipline 4 - Communicating conclusions and taking informed action

National Council of Teachers of English: Standards 1, 3, 5, 6, 12

Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework

  • 8.T4: Rights and responsibilities of citizens
  • USII.T5: United States and globalization
  • GOV.T4: : Political parties, interest groups, media, and public policy

Massachusetts English Language Arts Framework

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language