Presidential Elections in the Age of Television

By Rothwell, Jennifer Truran | Social Education, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Presidential Elections in the Age of Television


Rothwell, Jennifer Truran, Social Education


Federal Hall, New York City, 1789. The president of the U.S. Senate counts the ballots returned from presidential electors in the thirteen states that constitute the new United States of America. Each elector has cast two ballots. The candidate who receives the most votes will become president, and the first runner-up, vice president. The count shows that all 69 electors have cast one of their ballots for George Washington of Virginia, making him the unanimous choice for president. John Adams of Massachusetts wins the vice presidency. All has been accomplished by the rules set down in the U.S. Constitution, and in the absence of political parties, campaigns, or fundraising. As a delegation is dispatched to Mt. Vernon to inform Washington of his election, truly it seems fair to say that "the office has sought the man."

Canton, Ohio, 1896. Republican candidate William Mckinley stands on his porch and delivers a speech to citizens and reporters who have made their way to his hometown in Ohio. Meanwhile, somewhere in America, Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan steps out of his railway carriage to address a crowd gathered at the depot. But Bryan's famed oratory and 18,000 miles of travel in the first "whistle-stop campaign" in American history prove no match for the candidate who creates the impression of being sought in his won carefully planned "front-porch campaign." Nor is Bryan's campaign chest of $650,000 any match for the unprecedented $7 million or so raised and spent by Republican campaign chairman Mark Hanna. Hanna is the man known for the apocryphal remark, "There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can't remember what the second is."(1)

Washington, D.C, 2000. The primaries have come and gone, with Republican John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley--both strong proponents of campaign finance reform--having lost their races to George W. Bush and Albert Gore, respectively. During the interregnum before the conventions, the Democratic National Committee announces plans to raise $30 million for TV "issue ads" to "pump up Gore's candidacy."(2) The dress code for its fundraising party is strictly "plain folks"--blue jeans--though the take for the night consists mainly of $50,000-plus donations.(3) The Republican National Committee responds with its own plan for issue ads that attack Gore rather than promoting Bush, "because GOP strategists believe that Bush has high favorable ratings and is doing well with `free media.'"(4) Is all this legal? Not according to Darrell M. West, author of the recently published Checkbook Democracy who calls this year "the Wild West of issue advocacy; anything goes."(5)

Clearly, presidential elections have come a long way since the beginning of the republic, and happily so, as it was a small number of qualified voters who chose the lawmakers who elected the first president of the United States. The means for informing the public about candidates have similarly come a long way. Never before has there been so much information available to so many about the few who will lead them--information set in quaint print, broadcast nonstop on television and radio, and roaming about in cyberspace. But what is the quality of that information? How is it affected by the medium that delivers it? And, most importantly, what uses of media can best serve to educate the citizenry and maintain a healthy democracy?

Since the advent of television, the print media have steadily lost ground in their role as arbiters of political information. Meanwhile, some already look to the Internet as the dominant medium for future politics. According to former Clinton White House spokesman Michael McCurry, "The Era of the Imagemaker ... is giving way to the Era of the Webmaster."(6) But, at present, television continues to hold sway as the central medium of political exchange. Moreover, it is not traditional news coverage that may be having the greatest impact on the electoral process. …

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