Meet the (Ideal) Candidate: How Viewers Interpret Political Advertising during the "Invisible Primary"

Article excerpt

Before any ballots are cast--and even before most candidates run their 30-second TV ads--presidential campaigns produce "meet the candidate videos" to begin the process of presenting a candidate's personality and platform to potential voters (Parmelee, 2002). The videos usually run about 10 minutes and provide a candidate's personal history as well as substantial issue discussion. These videos are distributed nationwide via direct mail--on DVDs or videotapes--or the candidates' Web sites months before the early presidential nomination contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. It is during these crucial months, described by Hadley (1976) as "the invisible primary," that these videos are utilized by candidates to introduce themselves.

In every race since 1988, most presidential campaigns have used candidate videos in their advertising strategy, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce and to distribute them (Parmelee, 2003). Several candidates, including Bill Clinton in 1992, have found these videos crucial to their nomination victory (Ceaser & Busch, 1993; Devlin, 1994). The videos are marketed to potential donors, mailed to likely voters, and shown by Democratic and Republican faithful at major party functions. Also, the videos are typically shown to small groups of supporters who gather in living rooms at the thousands of house parties that are held during the primary season (Faucheux, 1997; Luntz, 1988). Journalists also receive the videos in an attempt to spur positive coverage (Kurtz, 1995). An ever-increasing number of people are exposed to candidate videos with each election cycle, as changes in technology make dissemination cheaper and easier. Some candidates went from distributing as few as 500 videos in 1988 to 85,000 in 1996 (Parmelee, 2003, pp. 12-23). In 2004, the Web sites of several presidential candidates posted their video for anyone to see. New technology such as the Web site YouTube provides yet another venue for video dissemination. The videos help candidates in forming their image for the broader campaign by testing certain visual and verbal information on the most politically active during the pre-primary stage. Such information tends to be used by candidates during later stages of the campaign--in 30-second candidate ads, for example--when candidates receive positive feedback about the videos from party leaders or campaign-run focus groups (Parmelee, 2003, p. 93).

As more and more people become exposed to meet the candidate videos, it is important to know how viewers interpret such advertising during the early days of a presidential primary, when there is less other candidate information to draw on than during later stages in the campaign. Furthermore, studying the type of advertising that makes a first impression is especially useful because the candidate video's long format allows for a more comprehensive appeal during presidential primaries than a 30-second ad. While every major 2004 Democratic candidate distributed a meet the candidate video, this study examined the videos of the four candidates who won the most delegates: Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, and retired General Wesley Clark. The present study sought to answer the question of how viewers evaluate early political advertising by examining focus group responses to the ads that are designed to create a candidate's first impression.

Presidential Primaries and the "Ideal" Candidate

It is not well understood how potential voters interpret political advertising during the invisible primary. While presidential primary voters tend to be more politically active than the general election electorate, many of these voters are quite uninformed about the candidates during the earliest stage of the primary season (Bartels, 1988; Frankovic, 1993). Advertising used during this period therefore can be particularly persuasive to viewers because they often have little other candidate information to draw on (Kendall, 2000). …