In early presidential elections the local newspapers, supporting favorite candidates, influenced many voter’s choices. Later radio was the avenue that candidates used to reach the people. It was not until 1960, however, that television, with the Kennedy/Nixon debates, began to take over the media’s influence on a candidates election. By the time of the 1972 elections, this pattern was set. The mass media had and continues to have a major influence on presidential elections.
One must look at past elections to determine what influence, if any, the media had on the results. Candidates in the 1972 presidential election were George McGovern, for the Democrats and Richard Nixon, for the Republicans.
Nixon won his bid for re-election in a landslide victory, but that victory was made bittersweet by the fact that voter turnout was the lowest it had ever been. Low voter turnout was a clear indication that voters were unhappy with both of the candidates and as a result refused to be involved.
Nixon’s presidency from 1968-72 was marred by an economic down trend and the United States’ continued involvement in Vietnam. Most people continued to view Nixon as the one who had ended the war and brought the troops home, however, so the latter was probably more of a sore spot than a major issue. Events that occurred during the campaign and the media’s coverage of them, seem to indicate that the outcome of the election was strongly influenced by the press.
McGovern was the candidate who received the most attention in the media. Several things occurred during the campaign that shed a negative light on his character. First, his choice and eventual rejection of Thomas Eagleton received widespread media coverage. Many Americans were sympathetic towards Eagleton and did not feel that his treatment “for mental exhaustion” (Asher 183) was a significant issue. The press made a big issue of it however, and McGovern vacillated on a decision before finally dumping him. Not only did this make McGovern appear indecisive, but it also made him look like an ogre for abandoning the man he promised to stand beside.
McGovern’s campaign was further hampered by his denial of his involvement in the Paris peace talks. McGovern had suggested that Pierre Salinger go to Paris and discuss peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Salinger had done this and openly discussed it with the press. McGovern, probably fearing being accused of assuming too much pre-election authority, denied his involvement.
Finally, the Nixon forces, partly because of the Watergate break-in and partly as a carry-over from the 1968 election where the democrats were so divided that they did themselves in, were close mouthed about their activities. Nixon and his campaign staff were so tight lipped that the press was allowed little coverage. Nixon used his position as the incumbent president to ward off the press. The result was that a great deal of press coverage was focused on McGovern’s campaign that would have otherwise been more equally divided.
As much as Nixon’s people were close mouthed, McGovern’s people were open. The media took full advantage of this. McGovern forces were so open in fact that newspaperman Timothy Crouse was driven to comment that “It is one thing for a candidate to see the press frequently and answer their questions honestly
. . . it is another thing for a campaign staff to talk openly about its problems, feuds and discontents.” The results for McGovern were his looking “hopelessly disorganized and irresponsible” (Asher 183), Crouse added. This image was drawn by the press as well as the campaign staff so that McGovern looked worse than when he started and certainly worse than he really was.
McGovern figured that his openness would show how honest he was and Nixon’s refusal to talk would make him appear dishonest. Logically that is the way it should have turned out. The Washington post, the New York Times and McGovern all attempted to make the Watergate break-in an issue in the campaign. The majority of the Watergate story had already been revealed by election day, but it had no effect on the outcome of the election. There were three major reasons for this. First, McGovern already had an image of being indecisive and extreme and was considered incapable of running the country. Secondly, Nixon denied any previous knowledge of, or involvement in, the break-in and people believed him. Finally, the sources of the Watergate information were considered biased, designed by journalists who favored McGovern. Other newspapers, magazines and commentators voiced these opinions which carried heavy weight with the voters.
A presidential pardon, conflicts with Congress, bloopers that made him look stupid and inept, almost doomed Gerald Ford before he started his campaign for president in 1976. All of these events had received widespread media coverage. Perhaps the most unfair to Ford was the excessive coverage he got when he bumped his head getting into a helicopter and another time when he fell skiing. He was made to look clumsy and stupid. People laughed at him rather than with him and it affected attitudes on his ability to run the country. Americans looked at a “weak” president which had a world effect of the United States being weaker.
People distrusted politicians more than any other time in the history of this country. Most people wanted a change. Few people had ever heard of the peanut farmer, former governor of Georgia – James Earl Carter. A standing joke in the media became “Jimmy who?” Then came the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, which Carter won – although not decisively. The mass media took over from there, citing Carter “as the front runner” (Pomper 11) and he was on his way. He began receiving national attention with cover photos on Time and Newsweek. Numerous stories were run in all of the major newspapers and he appeared on many television news interviews.
What people saw in those interviews was a wide grinned, innocent looking man who was detached from the Washington scene. The media hyped this angle too. Actually, Carter’s campaign manager, Hamilton Jordan, had counted on the power of the press to catapult his candidate to national prominence. Carter presented an image of “personal qualities” such as “honesty, trustworthiness and competence” (Pomper 11) rather than focusing on the issues. Carter did not win by a large margin over Ford, but it seems clear that the media coverage he received delivered him from the farm to the White House in a very short time.
By the time the 1980 campaign rolled around Carter had become aware of how little power his office had. He had been unable to fulfill campaign promises that he had hoped for and he had been embarrassed by the Iranian hostage situation. He also had to contend with a former actor who also happened to be an excellent politician.
Perhaps not surprisingly the press did not give much attention to Ronald Reagan in the beginning. He was considered just another former governor like Carter and most of all an ex-actor. That seemed to be enough to doom him in the eyes of the press. George Bush seemed to be a more formidable opponent, at least as far as the press was concerned.
It is possible that the media felt that they had been duped in the previous election because when Carter attempted to get early coverage they refused to give it to him. Late in 1979, intending to begin his campaign early, President Carter tried to buy a half hour of television time. The networks refused to sell him the time saying “that the campaign hadn’t started yet” (Greenfield 11). The networks said this in spite of the fact that they had been covering all the other candidates’ movements for over a year.
It’s worth mentioning that there were three candidates in the 1980 election. They were President Carter, for the Democrats, Ronald Reagan, for the Republicans and John Anderson, an Independent. Carter and Reagan received the major coverage in the media, which is usually the case. The media rarely gives much attention to candidates outside the two major political parties.
In 1984 President Reagan had the nomination and the election in his pocket before it all began. There was little anyone could have done to stop him. Walter Mondale seemed almost a sacrificial candidate for the democrats. Reagan had a successful presidency that had seen the country come out of a recession and people loved him. He was viewed as a strong leader and very capable. Things such as his age and health were not factors in the election.
While the mass media may not have a definitive effect on who is elected as president, the image it presents is vital to the candidates. It has been proven that image is one of the most important elements in people’s decision to vote for or against a candidate. Because of this, television has become the primary source of information for most voters.
In 1956 over 50 percent of the population named television as their primary source of information in presidential elections. By 1972 these percentages had risen to 88 percent (Asher 223-224). People listed newspapers, radio and magazines as secondary sources, in that order (224). It is clear that television has the greatest overall effect on the majority of voters. This is true even though the other media used, and the numbers and times they are used, vary greatly.
Because television has less in-depth coverage of issues and events it has the ability to appear to be more biased. In fact, the kind and amount of coverage a candidate receives can significantly affect his electability in the eyes of the voter. Richard Hofstetter, in his book Bias in the News – A Study of Network Coverage of the 1972 Election Campaign, points out that there was “a noticeable amount of structural and situational bias” (Asher 228) in the Nixon/McGovern campaign. Nixon’s coverage let voters see him doing his job as president, traveling to China and the Soviet Union – in short as a domestic, tranquil type of man. McGovern’s press coverage was as discussed earlier.
It is evident that the image a candidate projects does not always equal his ability to hold office. “Public opinion Quarterly” did a study on what people look for in a presidential candidate. It was discovered that the majority of people, no matter what their education level, viewed a candidate’s character and personal appearance equally as important in deciding his ability to hold public office (Glass 524-525). This is particularly relevant when media coverage, especially television, is so involved in the campaign.
Joseph Klapper in The Effects of Mass Communications said, “Mass communication ordinarily does not serve as a necessary and sufficient cause of audiences effects, but rather functions among and through a nexus of mediating factors and influences” (Asher 232). In other words there have not been sufficient studies to prove the long term effect the media has on voters’ choices. Even so, there are a few things that are clear and that lend one to believe that the media has a great deal of effect on the outcome of elections.
Some of these things are that television has replaced the old political machine as a source of information for many voters. Many people, even fully informed on the issues, have a difficult time deciding whom to vote for. They want an outside source to confirm or deny their opinions. Further, people don’t like to vote for a candidate who cannot win; they prefer to align themselves to a winner. It has also been proven in studies that people remember negative information longer than they remember positive information. In looking at these factors and considering how the media responded to the candidates in the elections of 1972 through 1984, it appears that the influence of the media was widespread.