Academic journal article Communication Studies

Presidential Television Advertising and Public Policy Priorities, 1952-2000

Academic journal article Communication Studies

Presidential Television Advertising and Public Policy Priorities, 1952-2000

Article excerpt

Do presidential candidates adapt their spot messages to the public's interests? This study conducts a computer content analysis of the texts of presidential television spots from 1952-2000. Public opinion poll data on the most important issues for voters, in each campaign, are used to structure the searches. The extent to which candidate spot messages conform to the public issue agenda is determined. Democrats' and challengers' spot messages are significantly more aligned with the public policy priorities than Republicans or incumbents. There is no significant difference between the correlation for winners versus losers. Finally, in 5 of the 13 elections there is a significant relationship between the issues covered by the two candidates. Clearly, some candidates are better at adapting their television messages to voters and in some elections the candidates tend to discuss the same policy issues.

Key Words: Political Campaigns, Policy, Issues, Presidential Television Spots, Public Issue Importance, Public Agenda, Public Opinion Poll Data, Public Policy Priorities

Since 1952 television advertising has become a necessity for a successful run for the president of the United States. In her historical account of presidential advertising Jamieson (1996) concluded that political television advertising is the major means by which candidates communicate with voters. One indication of the importance candidates place on television advertising is the amount of money spend on advertising: West (1997) indicated that television advertising has become the largest single expenditure in a presidential campaign. In the 2000 presidential election Bush and the Republican Party spent $64 million, and Gore and the Democratic Party spend $61 million, on television advertising between June and October (Marcus, 2000). There can be no mistaking the importance of television advertising in presidential campaigns. The objective of this study is to longitudinally examine this critical aspect of presidential campaigns.


The Functional Theory of Political Campaign Discourse (Benoit, 1999; Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998, 2000; Benoit & Harthcock, 1999; Benoit, Wells, Pier, & Blaney, 1999) posits that candidates have but two broad options for the topics of their campaign messages: policy (issues) and character (image). (1) Pomper (1975), for example, explained that many voters "change their partisan choice from one election to the next, and these changes are most closely related to their positions on the issues and their assessment of the abilities of the candidates" (p. 10). Of these two topics, Benoit (1999) found that candidates devote more of their spot messages to policy (60%) than to character (40%). This study will focus on presidential television advertising from the last 13 elections (1952-2000) to determine how the issues addressed in candidates' advertising relate to the issues that are most important to the public.

The Functional Theory posits that candidates must attempt to build a coalition of voters by selecting issues that are important to voters:

Candidates must also decide which topics to emphasize in their messages-as well as which position to take on various issues. The candidate must persuade a majority of those who are voting that he or she is preferable on the criteria that are most important to those voters. (Benoit et al., 1998, pp. 17-18, emphasis original).

Similarly, Herrnson and Patterson (2000) suggested that "voters cast their ballot for candidates who share their issue priorities" (p. 109). In other words, candidates have a reason to adapt their messages to voters' priorities. While most Americans vote for the candidate who represents their political party, a large number of voters (38%) are neither Republicans nor Democrats (Weisberg & Kimball, 1993). That is, support of one's own political party is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for winning the presidency. …

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