On the Spot: A Functional Analysis of Congressional Television Spots, 1980-2004

Article excerpt

Introduction

Congressional elections are crucial to the American political system. They offer citizens an opportunity to influence the direction of government, hold their representatives accountable (Maisel, 1999) and reinforce the legitimacy of the American political system (Jacobson, 2001). Although congressional elections occur twice as often as--and include far more players than--presidential races, they receive substantially less public and scholarly attention. This is unfortunate, because the unique nature of House and Senate constituencies requires congressional campaigns to pay special attention to the specific needs of voters in a particular state or district. Furthermore, Graber (1989) noted that "television commercials often provide the only chance to gain information about the many candidates who are ignored by the media" in primary or nonpresidential campaigns (p. 196). In addition, smaller constituencies and lower voter turnout make each vote cast in a race for House or Senate count more than votes cast in presidential elections. Abramowitz and Segal (1992) observed that "television advertising has become the primary method by which Senate candidates communicate with the voters" (p. 230). Similarly, Goldstein, Krasno, Bradford, and Seltz (2001) argued that "In many House races ..., television advertising ... is the chief way that candidates for Congress communicate their messages to voters" (p. 92). So, it is imperative for congressional candidates to spend millions of dollars on advertising (Gordon, 2000; Jenkins, 1997; Miller & Miller, 2000). Congressional campaign spots elections clearly merit scholarly attention.

Past research has not employed a longitudinal approach to studying TV spots in congressional campaigns. This study will fill this void in the literature. The next section reviews the literature of congressional campaign television spots. After that, we articulate this study's purpose, research questions, and method. Finally, findings are presented and discussed.

Literature Review

In this section, we review the literature on television advertising in congressional campaigns. First, we discuss previous content analyses that have explored the functions (or tone of television spots. Then we discuss the topics of congressional television spots (i.e., issues or policy, candidate image or character).

Functions of Congressional Television Spots

Several studies investigate the function or tone of congressional campaign ads. For example, Kern's (1989) study of spots from the 1984 North Carolina campaigns found that about half of the U.S. House spots, and 60% of U.S. Senate ads, were negative (see also studies by Abbe, Herrnson, Magleby, & Patterson, 2001; Airne & Benoit, 2005; Benze & Declercq, 1985; Brazeal & Benoit, 2001; Bystrom & Miller, 1999; Goldstein, Krasno, Bradford, & Seltz, 2001; Hale, Fox, & Farmer, 1996; Johnston, 1999; Johnston & White, 1994; Kahn & Kenney, 1999; Lau & Pomper, 2004; Payne & Baukus, 1988; and Pfau, Parrott, & Lindquist, 1992). Research has also established that incumbency status is related to the tone of ads. Goldstein, Krasno, Bradford, and Seitz (2001) found that 65% of incumbent ads in 1998 were positive and 17% were negative, whereas 36% of challenger spots were positive and 42% were negative (see also Abbe et al., 2001; Airne & Benoit, 2005; Brazeal & Benoit, 2001; Hale, Fox, & Farmer, 1996; Kahn & Kenney, 2000; Lau & Pomper 2004; Payne & Baukus, 1988). Airne and Benoit (2005) reported the tone for Democratic and Republican spots from the House and Senate in 2000. Calculation of [chi square] S on their data reveals no significant difference in acclaims or attacks by political party in either sample of ads. Lau and Pomper (2004), on the other hand (relying on newspaper reports rather than content analysis of ads), found that Senate Republicans were more likely to attack than Democrats from 1990-2002. …