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Dog Bites Man: How TV Has Helped Presidential Politics

November 12, 2000|Joseph Hanania | Joseph Hanania, who lives in Santa Monica, writes frequently about TV and minority issues

Never has presidential political advertising been so clean, so informative, so devoid of personal attacks. Never has it brought so many voters into the political process, making the country more democratic than ever. And we can thank TV for this.

So says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Everything You Think You Know About Politics . . . And Why You're Wrong." In fact, says Jamieson, this year may well have witnessed a sea change in how presidential political campaigns are run.

"The closeness of this election, coupled with important issues addressed in the ads and the debates, increased voter turnout," she says. "In the election's closing days, as the polls indicated a race too close to call, the usual expectations that undecided voters would fall away proved wrong. Instead, the undecideds not only came out in force; they [went] toward [Al] Gore. Because of TV's influence, voter interest and attention to politics both increased."

Yet, it was not always clear that this would be so. A mere 12 years ago, Jamieson says, candidates were held largely unaccountable for ads promoting their candidacies. At the same time, given TV's disproportionately growing clout--it now soaks up about 67 cents of every campaign dollar or about $1 billion this year--many people despaired over the country's future. TV smears, sound bites taken out of context and grainy, unflattering photos of opposing candidates would, experts feared, subvert the national dialogue essential to a free election.

Instead, says Jamieson, the system has come together with a series of built-in checks that have actually increased voter turnout. What's behind all this?

Although seeming to appeal to the mass electorate, presidential campaigns really hinge on swing voters, especially those in key states. That's why this year's ads were disproportionately concentrated in battleground states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Florida and Wisconsin, while ignoring the most populous ones, New York and California. With swing voters making up just 10% of the electorate and with most of those voters moderate middle-class women averse to attack ads, candidates have cleaned up their campaigns not out of altruism but out of practicality, says Jamieson.

In fact, given TV's omnipresence, a return to smoke-filled rooms with machine bosses deciding who runs and how is inconceivable, as then Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley (the father of Gore campaign manager William M. Daley) found out following the 1968 Democratic convention. Moreover, political bosses themselves have largely been replaced by primaries--thanks, once more, to TV's democratization.

OK, say some nattering nabobs of negativism (with apologies to former Vice President Spiro Agnew), so what if TV has broadened the number of voters? Hasn't it also cheapened political discourse, replacing weighty arguments put forth in, say, the "Federalist Papers" or the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 with corny, often embarrassing images, such as 1988 Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis grinning goofily from a tank?

As a matter of fact, it hasn't. Such imagery long preceded the political TV ad. Thus, in 1840, Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison, who lived in a three-story Georgian mansion on a 2,000-acre estate, nevertheless campaigned--through songs, banners, coonskin-cap souvenirs and planted newspaper accounts--as a backwoods Everyman living in a log cabin. Citing an exaggerated heroism from an indecisive battle against the Shawnee Indians at an obscure town called Tippecanoe Creek, the "backwoodsman war hero" won on the catchy slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" referring to his running mate, John Tyler.

Given TV's reach, could such a deception today last more than a single news cycle?

Moreover, TV has destroyed a candi date's ability to pander to local audiences without it being known elsewhere. This year, for example, Republican nominee George W. Bush attempted to rally the conservative base in South Carolina by appearing at fundamentalist Bob Jones University without condemning its anti-Roman Catholic sentiments. This would not have caused much controversy in the days before TV, but it set off a firestorm when broadcast nationwide.

Finally, through their ever-broadening reach, TV and radio have helped uplift the national political discourse. Thus the census of 1850 classified a mere 5% of newspapers as politically "neutral and independent." A century later, amid competition from the airwaves, more than half the nation's newspapers called themselves independent, says Jamieson. Today, the partisan newspaper is on the endangered list.

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