Impact of Television on Presidential Elections

The Impact of Television on Presidential Elections: The aim of this paper is to look at the relationship between the mass media, specifically television, and presidential elections. This paper will focus on the function of television in presidential elections through three main areas: exit polls, presidential debates, and spots. The focus is on television for three reasons. First, television reaches more voters than any other medium. Second, television attracts the greatest part of presidential campaign budgets. Third, television provides the candidates a good opportunity to contact the people directly.

A second main theme of this paper is the role of television in presidential elections in terms of representative democracy in the United States. Researchers tend to hold one of three views about television's influence on voters. Some believe that television affects voters in the short run, for example in an election campaign. Another group of researchers believes that television has a great influence on voters over time and that television's impact on voters is a continuous process from one campaign to the next.

Others stand between the two views or combine both. In the last three decades, polls became an important instrument for the media, especially television networks, to determine who wins and who loses the election. Caprini conducted a study about the impact of the early prediction of a winner in the 1980 presidential race by the television networks. He observed that, shortly after 8 p. m. Eastern standard time, NBC announced that, according to its analysis of exit poll data, Ronald Reagan was to be the next president of the United States (Caprini, 1984, p. 866).

That early call was controversial because the polls in many states were still open at the time and, in some of the western states, would remain open for several hours. Caprini ended his study with the following conclusion: Voting for the Republican candidate was completely unaffected by the early call, with precall and postcall districts varying from their normal patterns in exactly the same amount and direction. The Democratic vote, however, declined 3. 1 percent more in the postcall districts than in the precall districts (p. 874). This result suggests that the NBC prediction did have an impact on the election.

Additionally, this result supports the impact of the media on political behavior. Some experts argue that rates of voting in the western states are not affected by early projections. Strom and Epstein argue that the decline in western states' turnouts is not a result of the early projections by the networks but is the result of a complicated combination of factors, none of which is related to information received on election day (Epstein and Strom, 1981, pp. 479-489). This argument denies the influence of polls on the voting turnout in the first place, and it denies the impact of media on political behavior.

Other researchers look at the issue of exit polls from a legal perspective. Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer, supports the constitutional rights of the media and says their exercising of their rights should not be restricted, even if that influences the voters: Once it becomes a legal issue, even people who believe that projections are harmful, or that exit polls are sometimes misused, should unite and say that the law should not be used to stop people from exercising their constitutional rights even if we happen to disagree with the way that they are using them (Abrams, 1985, p.78).

These different viewpoints represent two sides, the public and the media. Few researchers believe that exit polls have no effect on voting behavior. The majority of researchers believe that exit polls and early projections of the presidential elections do influence voters, but they disagree to what extent. The most persuasive reason to include televised debates in presidential campaigns is that voters want them.

Voters find something in televised debates that confirms their previously held support for a candidate or helps them to decide whom to support. So television debates are now part of the political landscape. However, one expert has written that, even after the Bush-Dukakis debate, thus making four campaigns in a row to include debates, he would not predict continuation: "there are too many points at which disagreement might scuttle the whole plan" (Mickelson, 1989, p. 164).

Stephen Hess in his book, The Presidential Campaign, observes that: While some contend that televised debates of 1960 and 1976 elected John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, those elections were so close that any single factor – including debates – could have been said to have made the difference (Hess, 1988, p. 76). Debates give people an opportunity to learn about those who will be president. This is probably the most positive thing to come out of the televised debates.

People build their images about the candidates through their stands on the issues. For the 1960 debates, Katz and Feldman reviewed studies: As far as issues are concerned, the debates seem to have (a) made some issues more salient rather than others (the issues made salient, of course, may or may not have been the most important ones); (b) caused some people to learn where the candidates stand (including the stand of the opposition candidate); (c) effected very few changes of opinions on issues; and (d) focused more on presentation and personality than on issues (Katz and Feldman, 1962, pp. 173-223). This conclusion shows the importance of "psychological factors" in voting.

As technology develops, researchers try to determine its impact on voting behavior. Technicians use advanced techniques during the presidential debates to get the viewers' attention. The most impressive effect of the presidential debates is its impact on voters compared to that of other televised political communication in presidential campaigns. In a 1983 study of 2,530 voting-age Americans, ABC News and the John F. Kennedy School of Government noted that voters and non-voters agree that debates are more helpful in deciding whom to vote for than either television news reports or the candidate's own television ads (Kraus, 1988, p.128).

So it is obvious that such debates will have some impact on the outcome of the elections. Presidential debates are controlled by the candidates in several ways: the decision about whether to participate, the approval of areas of discussion, and the refusal to debate without panelists (p. 142). The 1988 debates were actually just joint appearances by Bush and Dukakis answering reporters' questions in two-minute and one-minute segments (Mickelson, 1989, p. 164). The year 1952 witnessed the emergence of the televised spot commercial in politics.

The spot is a very short ad designed to convey a specific point or image without going into depth on issues or providing much detail. Since that time, spot commercials have been a main part of presidential campaigns. Joe McGinniss, an expert on campaigns, noticed the importance of the political ads: It is not surprising then, that politicians and advertising men should have discovered one another. And, once they recognized that the citizen did not so much vote for a candidate as make a psychological purchase of him, not surprising that they began to work together (McGinniss, 1969, p. 27).

The goals of spots are converting the voters and keeping the committed in line. Also, spots can encourage the voters to go out and vote on the basis of their commitments (Diamond and Bates, 1984, p. 352). These goals are related to the short-term influences of television on voting behavior because spots appear in the last weeks of the campaign. They could make a difference in the outcome of the presidential election. The goals are also related to the long-term influences of television on voting behavior because young voters today have been raised with television and they perceive the political process through the media.

The evidence supports the idea that spots, more than anything else, could make a difference in the outcome of the presidential elections. Sidney Kraus makes this point in the book, Televised Presidential Debates: It came as a surprise to almost everyone in the broadcasting industry to find a major study of the 1972 presidential race (conducted by two political scientists) concluding that voters learned more about Richard Nixon and George McGovern from political spots than they did from the combined nightly newscasts of the networks" (Kraus, 1988, p. 17).

Kathleen Jamieson agrees: . . . political advertising is now the major means by which candidates for presidency communicate their messages to voters . . . Unsurprisingly, the spot add is the most used and the most viewed of the available forms of advertising (Jamieson, 1984, p. 446). On the other hand, others argue that spots are not providing the voters good information about the candidates. Theodore Lowi supports that position: Since the brief commercials are built on impressions rather than logic, "instant replay" benefits the sender, not the receiver (Lowi, 1985, p.64).

Others describe these spots as selling candidates like any other product. These experts ask whether presidential campaigns should be run on marketing principles or political tactics, whether the best candidate or the most telegenic performer wins, whether money can buy enough media to buy elections (Lowi, 1985, p. 65). The emergence of spots has been particularly upsetting to those who believe that political campaigns should inform the voters, not manipulate the opinions of the voters.

The growing role of television in the presidential elections and its effects on the public gives rise to an important question: Is this phenomenon healthy for democracy in the United States? Television became an important factor in the election process for several reasons: the decline of political parties, which had been the most important factor; (Wattenberg, 1986, p. 108) developing technology, which provided new opportunities for political television, like spots and debates; and, as a consequence of the decline of political parties, decreasing voter turnout in presidential elections since 1960.

For example, only 53. 3 percent of the eligible citizens voted in 1984, the lowest since 1948. This is the same period during which the amount of money spent on televised political advertising tripled (in constant dollars) (Diamond, 1984, p. 352). Experts disagree about how television should function in a democratic society. Proponents see television as part of political socialization, and they believe that voters have profited from the presidential debates and political ads. Proponents do, however, suggest particular improvements in presidential debates.

Kraus suggests the following: Campaign Act of 1971 provides a tax check off to help finance campaigns in presidential general elections, and since the public want presidential debates those who receive funds should debate. Candidates may refuse to debate, but they would not receive public funds (Kraus, 1988, p. 154). Others defend television from a legal perspective. Floyd Abrams defends exit polls as follows: Once it becomes legal issue, even people who believe that projections are harmful . . . should write and say that the law should not be used to stop people from exercising their constitutional rights (Abrams, 1985, p.18).

Opponents look at television as a harmful factor in the democratic process of electing a president. According to one expert, "The promise [of] television . . . has collapsed in an era dominated by packaged campaigns and avoidance of issues (Mickelson, 1989, p. 167). Others see the media as the main cause of the decline of political parties, which were supposed to be intermediary between the government and the people in a representative democracy, and they believe the decline of the parties will increase the gap between the government and the people. Also, they see the media as a part of the political elite in the United States.

Edward Greenberg noticed this point: Most importantly, the mass media are themselves parts of gigantic corporate empires and, while a few among them may experience an occasional episode of "muckraking" these media are firmly, in the long run, entrenched in the camp of the powerful (Greenberg, 1986, p. 22). Regulations are necessary to control some of the bad effects of the media, particularly television. Exit polls could be regulated so that East Coast poll results are not announced until the last poll on the West Coast closes. Participation in presidential debates should be required of candidates who want to receive campaign funds.

Spots should have more regulations than the previous two areas because the candidates use spots to attack each other. For example, in the 1988 elections, George Bush had one spot in which he rode a yacht through Boston Harbor to show that Michael Dukakis is not an environmentalist and which appeared many times during the last days of the campaign (Mickelson, 1989, p. 162). The public got the impression that Dukakis is not concerned about the environment. Spots should be based on facts. This paper demonstrates that the mass media, particularly television, have a great effect on presidential elections.

Analyzing exit polls, presidential debates, and spots shows that television does affect the voters and the voting turnout in the United States. Scholars agree on the effects of television on presidential races; however, they disagree on the extent to which television has affected voting behavior and the voters. Television emphasized the decline of political parties in the last four decades. Although some experts believe television in presidential elections is healthy, others believe it is harmful to democracy, increasing the gap between the government and the people. The negative effects of political television on democracy can be eliminated through regulations. Such regulations could permit political television without its dangers.


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