Contemporary presidential election campaigns are essentially mass media campaigns. It is not that the mass media entirely determine what happens in the campaign, for that is far from true. But it is no exaggeration to say that, for the large majority of voters, the campaign has little reality apart from its media version. Moreover, the media have become the primary focus of the candidates’ campaign efforts. Today’s entrepreneuring candidates primarily direct their activities toward getting their messages through the media as often and as favorably as they can.“The committee was established to stimulate, plan, and coordinate research on mass communications and political behavior during the 1976 presidential election.”
This new character of presidential elections led the Council in 1974 to appoint a Committee on Mass Communications and Political Behavior.1The 1979–80 membership of the committee was Kenneth Prewitt, Social Science Research Council, chairman; Ben H. Bagdikian, University of California, Berkeley; Leo Bogart, Newspaper Advertising Bureau (New York); Richard A. Brody, Stanford University; Steven H. Chaffee, University of Wisconsin; Herbert Hyman, Wesleyan University; F. Gerald Kline, University of Minnesota; Thomas E. Patterson, Syracuse University; Ithiel de Sola Pool, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Forrest P. Chisman, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, consultant; and Robert A. Gates, staff. The committee was established to stimulate, plan, and coordinate research on mass communications and political behavior during the 1976 presidential election. Through different research teams, the committee studied the media process from the formation of the media agenda (i.e., the content of the media) to the impact of the agenda on the American people.
The present study addressed two more specific questions. What is the nature of the election messages that are transmitted through the media during the presidential campaign? And, how do these messages affect the public’s response to today’s campaign? In order to answer these questions, the study used two sources of evidence.
First, a panel survey of voters was carried out. Beginning in February 1976, before the primaries began, and ending in November after Election Day, the 1,200 respondents in the panel were interviewed as many as seven times each about their media use, their impressions of the candidates and the campaign, their awareness of the election’s issues, their interest in the campaign, and similar topics. The interviews were timed to bracket the major stages of the campaign—the early primaries, the late primaries, the conventions, the debates, and the general election. Five of the waves involved hour-long personal interviews; two of the waves were conducted by telephone.2The panel studies were conducted in two communities, Erie, Pennsylvania, and Los Angeles, California. Erie is an industrial city with a relatively homogeneous population of 270,000; over 60 percent of the families make their livelihood in blue-collar occupations. It is a heavily Roman Catholic city whose residents are mostly of German, Italian, or Polish extraction. In contrast, Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest metropolis, has a broad economy that employs slightly more white-collar than blue-collar workers. Except for a large Mexican American population, no minority population predominates. The interviewing was conducted by experienced interviewers employed by the Response Analysis Corporation, Princeton, New Jersey. The questionnaires were prepared by the author.
Second, a content analysis of the news media’s coverage of the 1976 presidential election was conducted. Examined was the entire election year’s reporting of the three major commercial television networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC; four daily newspapers—the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Herald–Examiner, the Erie News, and the Erie Times; and Time and Newsweek magazines.
News coverage of the campaign
In its coverage of the 1976 presidential campaign, the press concentrated on the strategic game played by the candidates in their pursuit of the presidency, thereby de-emphasizing questions of national policy and leadership. Half or more of the election coverage in each of the news outlets studied dealt with the competition between the candidates. Winning and losing, strategy and organization, appearances and tactics were the dominant themes of day-to-day election news. The substance of the election, on the other hand, received much less emphasis. The candidates’ policy positions, their personal and leadership characteristics, their private and public histories, background information on the election’s issues, and group commitments for and by the candidates accounted for only about 30 percent of election coverage.
This represents a major change from presidential elections in the past. In the 1940 election, for example, Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet found that about 35 percent of election news dealt with the fight to gain the presidency; a considerably larger amount, 50 percent, was concerned with subjects of policy and leadership.3Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet, The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign, 3rd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), 115–119. First published in 1944. In 1976, those proportions were reversed.
The increase in the number of primaries is one reason why contestual themes now dominate. It is clear, however, that the explanation goes beyond the primaries. A comparison of the 1940 and the 1976 coverage, including only the convention and general election periods, indicates a substantially greater orientation toward the contest in 1976.
Substance received more attention in the 1940s because campaigns then were shorter, a condition which worked to maintain the candidates’ control of the agenda. What they had to say about policy and leadership was the focus of election news because it held its news value and supplied sufficient material to fill most of the needs of the press for coverage. The fact is, however, there is not enough fresh issue and leadership material for the candidates to control the news during the 300-odd days of the present campaign or to meet the press’s increased demand for news about the election.“Although journalists consider the campaign to have more than ritual significance, they tend not to view it primarily as a battle over the directions of national policy and leadership.”
The press thus has more opportunity to base its news selections on its values, which results in greater emphasis on the contestual aspects of the campaign. In part, this reflects the tradition in journalism that news is to be found in an activity rather than in the underlying causes of that activity. “The function of news,” wrote Walter Lippmann, “is to signalize events.”4This and all subsequent statements by Walter Lippmann are from Public Opinion (New York: Macmillan, 1922). A paperback edition was published by the Free Press in 1965. Election activity and voting are the most visible aspects of the campaign and are therefore most likely to be used by the press as election news. Heavily emphasized are the simple mechanics of campaigning, as well as voting projections and returns. Moreover, although journalists consider the campaign to have more than ritual significance, they tend not to view it primarily as a battle over the directions of national policy and leadership. Rather, it is seen mainly as a power struggle between the candidates. “The game is a competitive one,” wrote Paul Weaver in describing this journalistic paradigm, “and the player’s principal activities are those of calculating and pursuing strategies designed to defeat competitors. …Public problems, policy debates, and the like…are noteworthy only insofar as they affect, or are used by, players in pursuit on the game’s rewards.”5Paul Weaver, “Is Televised News Biased?” The Public Interest, Winter 1972: 69.
This journalistic model affects presidential campaign coverage in almost every respect. A case in point is the 1976 Democratic nominating process. In theory, there is nothing total about a narrow victory or even a landslide in a state’s presidential primary. First, a single primary is just one indicator of the candidates’ popularity in a system of 50 state contests. Second, a presidential primary lacks the finality of the general election; the difference in the popularity of one candidate who gets 51 percent of a state’s primary vote and another who gets 49 percent is insignificant. Recognizing this, the Democratic Party has in recent years outlawed “winner-take-all” primaries; a state’s delegates are not awarded in total to the first-place finisher, but are distributed among the candidates in proportion to the votes they receive.
Press coverage of the 1976 Democratic primaries, however, operated on different principles. The press tended to project a single state’s results to the nation as a whole, and something close to a “winner-take-all” rule applied to its coverage. New Hampshire’s primary provides an example. Jimmy Carter, the lone centrist candidate, received 28 percent of the vote. The remaining four candidates, all from the party’s liberal wing, who together received 60 percent of the vote, were led by Morris Udall with 23 percent. Yet Carter was termed “the unqualified winner” by the press and received the balance of news coverage until the next primary. Time and Newsweek put Carter’s face on their covers and his story in 2,600 lines of its inside pages. The second-place finisher, Udall, received 96 lines; all of Carter’s opponents together received only 300 lines. The television and newspaper coverage given Carter that week was about four times the average amount given each of his major rivals.
This pattern held throughout the Democratic primaries. In the typical week following each primary, the first-place finisher received nearly 60 percent of the news coverage, the second-place finisher only 20 percent, the third-place finisher about 15 percent, and the fourth-place finisher about five percent. As the most frequent first-place finisher, Carter received about half of all news coverage given the Democratic candidates during the 1976 primaries; his eight active opponents shared the other half.
In the signal tradition of which Lippmann wrote, the naming of a winner in each primary meets almost every criteria for good news. The “winner” is the real story, and reporters are careful not to submerge this story in the intricacies of the presidential nominating system, for to do so would be to ignore the limited news space available, the gravitation toward the most salient fact about an event, and the need to capture what Lippmann called “the easy interest.”“The issues which the candidates stress most heavily are not those which are displayed most prominently in the news.”
Journalistic norms also play a significant part in which issues are emphasized in election news coverage. The issues which the candidates stress most heavily are not those which are displayed most prominently in the news. In their campaign speeches and televised political advertising, the candidates talk mostly about “diffuse” issues, ones in which the differences between the candidates are either indirect or mostly those of style and emphasis. These include appeals to separate constituencies and broad policy proposals, as in the commitment to maintain a healthy economy. Such issues in 1976 accounted for over half of the issue appeals in candidate-controlled communications. These issues, however, accounted for only about 20 percent of the issue messages in election news.
The news was dominated by what Colin Seymour-Ure has called “clear-cut” issues, those which neatly divide the candidates, provoke conflict, and can be stated in simple terms, usually by reference to shorthand labels, such as “busing” and “detente.”6Colin Seymour-Ure, The Political Impact of the Mass Media (Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1974), 223. Clear-cut issues have a special appeal to the press because they conform to traditional news values—they are both colorful and controversial. They also frequently build upon themselves, leading to charges and countercharges, creating what James David Barber identifies as the common type of developing news story, that of “action–reaction.”7James David Barber, “Characters in the Campaign: The Literary Problem,” in Race for the Presidency, ed. James David Barber (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1978), 117.
The press also has a liking for “campaign” issues. Campaign issues are ones that develop from incidents, usually errors in judgment by the candidates, such as Ford’s remark in 1976 during the second presidential debate that Eastern Europe was free from Soviet domination. For a week or more after they first break, campaign issues are major news items, often appearing in the headlines and at the top of television newscasts. In contrast, “policy” issues seldom receive this kind of attention from the press. They generally are not placed in the headlines nor are they covered for more than two days consecutively. In 1976, over 50 percent of the campaign issues received “heavy” news coverage; only 15 percent of the policy issues received such coverage.
Thus, issue news in the present campaign reflects the press’s interests more than the candidates’ interests. And this too is a change from earlier campaigns. In their panel study of the 1948 election, Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee found that issue news coverage originated largely with the candidates’ “official” statements and speeches in which they talked “past each other, almost as if they were participating in two different elections.”8Bernard Berelson, Paul F. Lazarsfeld, and William N. McPhee, Voting: A Study of Opinion Formation in a Presidential Campaign (University of Chicago Press, 1954), 236. Although this description applies to candidate-controlled communication in 1976, it does not apply to press-controlled communication. In the news, the major issues arose from the candidates’ blunders and their off-the-cuff attacks on the opposition.
In all of these tendencies, the print and television media were more alike than different. Every news outlet studied emphasized the contest, the “winner,” and clear-cut and campaign issues. The tendencies, however, were, in every instance, more extreme on television. It was on the network evening newscasts, more than in the newspapers, that journalistic values were most evident in coverage of the campaign.
The voters’ response
The impact of the media’s messages was found to depend on whether individuals followed the news closely or casually and whether they relied primarily on the newspaper or on television. Because these differences varied from one effect to another and interacted with other factors, they cannot be presented in this brief article. Thus, the following findings are presented with some loss of probity. The interested reader is referred to the full study.
Early election researchers studied the mass media’s impact on the voters’ basic attitudes and, upon finding that attitudes generally were unaffected by the campaign, concluded that mass communication was not a significant influence on the voters’ behavior. But the power of mass communication rests largely in its ability to affect voters’ perceptions. What the voters see on television and in the newspaper affects what they perceive to be the important events, critical issues, and serious contenders. And, as V. O. Key Jr., Benjamin Page, and others have noted, the voters’ decisions may depend on what they perceive to be at stake when they make their choice.“Election news emphasized the race rather than matters of policy and leadership, and it was the race that people thought of when asked about the election’s ‘most important aspect.’”
By emphasizing certain campaign events, simply by placing them repeatedly and prominently in the news, the press signals their importance to the public. By neglecting and underemphasizing other aspects, the press almost seems to suggest their unimportance. This power was evident during the 1976 election. Election news emphasized the race rather than matters of policy and leadership, and it was the race that people thought of when asked about the election’s “most important aspect.” Indeed, although matters of policy and leadership were at the top of people’s lists in the interviews conducted just before the campaign, they sank to the bottom during the campaign, replaced by a concern with the candidates’ electoral success.
The substantive side of the campaign in fact appears to have lost ground in the bid for the voters’ attention. In their study of the 1948 election, Berelson et al. reported that 67 percent of voters’ conversations were concerned with the candidates’ policy positions and qualifications. Only about a fourth of voters’ discussions in that election focused on the question of which candidate would win.9Ibid., 106. In 1976, however, only about 34 percent of people’s conversations were concerned with substance, while 50 percent focused on the contest, mostly in direct response to news stories about the race.
The focus of election news also affected which candidates the voters came to know in 1976. Before the first primary in New Hampshire, the Democratic contenders were largely unknown to the voters—only 20 percent felt they “knew” Carter, Udall, Harris, Bayh, Brown, Church, or Jackson.10For each candidate, respondents were asked whether they “had never heard of him before” or “had heard his name, but know nothing about him” or “knew something about him.” The last category—whether people felt they “knew” a candidate—proved to be the recognition level that was important to people’s behavior. This method of measuring recognition was validated by open-ended questions. Subsequent news coverage focused on Carter, and he was the sole Democrat to become dramatically more familiar to the voters. During the primaries, the percentage of the electorate which felt it “knew” Carter rose to over 80 percent, a 60 percent increase from the preprimary level. In contrast, recognition levels rose by only 14 percent for Udall, Brown, and Jackson; by only nine percent for Church; remained fairly constant for Harris; and even declined for Bayh.
These differences affected the outcome of the Democratic primaries. Although voters in primary elections are more informed than other citizens, they do not necessarily “know” each of the candidates on their ballots. Among Democrats who actually voted in their party’s 1976 primaries, for example, about 90 percent felt that they “knew” Carter, but less than 60 percent “knew” Jackson, Udall, or Brown. This becomes significant when it is realized that voters limit their choice to familiar candidates; upwards of 95 percent of the Democratic voters in 1976 cast their ballot for a candidate they “knew.” Carter was the beneficiary. He gained many votes from his recognition edge on his rivals; there was a minority of voters who felt they “knew” only Carter and nearly all of them supported him.
The themes of election news also had an impact on the voters’ images of the candidates. News of the candidates concentrated on how well they were running the race, and the impressions that voters acquired correspondingly tended to be stylistic, associated with the candidates’ campaign styles and performance. About 65 percent of the impressions that voters gained of the candidates in 1976 were stylistic in nature. Only 35 percent were political—those concerning the candidates’ governing capacities and policy proposals.
Substantial consequences resulted. News messages about the candidates’ campaign styles and performance were much less likely than messages about their politics and governing capacities to evoke partisan bias. During the primaries particularly, voters tended to develop favorable stylistic impressions of winning candidates and unfavorable impressions of losing candidates, pretty much regardless of the party of the candidate or the voter. This tendency followed the direction of news messages. In 1976, there were two favorable stylistic news messages for every unfavorable one about candidates who were conducting successful primary campaigns. In contrast, stylistic news messages about unsuccessful candidates were, on balance, unfavorable.
Once the primaries were over, the voters’ partisanship intensified, but this partisanship did not completely override earlier effects. Those individuals who had developed favorable impressions of a candidate’s style during the primaries were more likely to have favorable ones afterwards and were more likely to develop favorable ideas about the candidate’s politics. Liking his style, they were also more likely to come to appreciate his leadership capacities and policy leanings. This is not to suggest that partisanship and political impressions were less important to the voters’ behavior than their thoughts about a candidate’s style. Indeed, political influences played a greater role in vote choice in the general election. But stylistic impressions acted to dampen partisan effects, were positively associated with general election preferences, and had a close relationship to primary election choice. News messages about the race, then, are persuasive, in large part because they do not directly challenge the voters’ basic political attitudes.“Despite the fact, then, that the 1976 campaign was much longer and more intensely reported than the 1948 campaign, voters actually learned less about the issues.”
The themes of election coverage also affect what voters do not learn about today’s campaign. In their study of the 1948 election, Berelson and his colleagues found that, in August, two months before election day, 37 percent of the voters knew three-fourths of the issue positions taken by the candidates. In August 1976, however, only about 25 percent of the voters knew three-fourths of the candidates’ positions and, by October, the proportion had risen to only 33 percent.11Berelson et al. did not measure issue awareness in the interviews conducted just before election day, but commented that if they had done so, the level of awareness “almost certainly” would have been higher by that time (page 228). Despite the fact, then, that the 1976 campaign was much longer and more intensely reported than the 1948 campaign, voters actually learned less about the issues. That policy issues were placed less prominently in the news in 1976 than they had been in 1948 is certainly a major reason for the difference.
Disorganization is the hallmark of the present electoral system. The primaries are waged between entrepreneuring candidates interested mainly in selling themselves. The result is an extraordinary burden on voters, one Key identified in his classic study of one-party politics in the South: “The voter is confronted with new faces, new choices, and must function in a sort of state of nature.”12V. O. Key, Jr., Southern Politics in State and Nation (New York: Vintage Press, 1949), 303.
Today’s general election also places heavy demands on voters. When party leaders controlled nominations, the nominee was linked to the party’s traditional constituencies and policies, and a line of responsibility was established between the nominee and his party’s performance in office. Voters thus were assured about the nature of the nominee’s politics and had the opportunity to reward or punish him for the actions of his party. Today’s nominee cannot be measured so easily. Every nominee, of course, has some enduring ties, including those to party, but the fact that the candidate now organizes his own campaign increases his independence. Moreover, there is little that prevents a candidate from disclaiming responsibility for the actions of any preceding administration.
It is this chaotic electoral system that the press is expected by its critics and apologists alike to make intelligible to the voters. Reporters themselves often claim they can perform this task. And, even if journalists did not want the responsibility, it is theirs by virtue of an electoral system built upon numerous primaries, self-generated candidacies, and weak party leaders. The burden on the press is particularly severe during the nominating phase of the campaign. Communicating with each voter for a few minutes daily, the press may be asked to create an electorate that can understand what a half dozen previously unfamiliar candidates represent.“The news simply is not an adequate guide to political choice.”
It is an unworkable arrangement. It fails because the press is not a political institution and has no stake in organizing public opinion. “The press is no substitute for institutions,” wrote Lippmann. “It is like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision. Men cannot do the work of the world by this light alone. They cannot govern society by episodes, incidents, and interruptions.” Although the press and the political party both serve to link candidates with voters, these two intermediaries are very different in kind. The parties have an incentive to identify and represent those interests that are making demands for symbolic and policy representation. The press has no such incentive. It is in the news business, and its inadequacy as a linking mechanism becomes obvious once the nature of election news is understood. The news simply is not an adequate guide to political choice. Its major themes are dictated by journalistic values, not political ones.
Moreover, it is a fiction that the press can make up for defective political institutions. As Lippmann noted, the press inevitably magnifies the system’s deficiencies, as is plainly evident in the 1980 campaign. Today’s nominating system, for example, naturally gives added influence to voters in states holding early contests, a bias magnified by the press’s build-up of these contests and its determination to call and cover the winners. And although changes in the campaign have increased the voters’ need for information about the candidates’ politics, election news now contains proportionately less information of this kind.
The public’s attention to politics is also an obstacle to the soundness of press-mediated elections. Casual daily news exposure is not a sufficient condition for informed citizenship. It results only in an awareness of those subjects that are placed at the top of the news again and again. Consequently, voters develop more impressions of the candidates’ styles than of their leadership capacities and know more of the candidates’ victory chances and tactical blunders than of their platforms.
The need for stronger political parties
The problem of today’s campaign thus lies deeper than the nature of the press. The real weakness of the present system is that it is built upon the dismantling of the political party, which, in Everett Carll Ladd’s words, is “the one institution able to practice political planning.”13Everett Carll Ladd, Where Have All the Voters Gone? (New York: Norton, 1978), 72. Although individual voters cannot readily and at no cost to themselves discover the politics of several contenders for their party’s nomination, party leaders, because they specialize in politics, can make this determination. And judging from the most recent campaigns, party leaders are more adept than the voters themselves at selecting nominees who meet the public’s desires for policy and leadership. Parties have an overriding reason—the need to win elections—for selecting nominees who will meet with the approval of the voters.
Public and elite opinion would not sanction a nominating process that was controlled entirely by party leaders, but the time has come to find ways to increase the party’s influence in a nominating system that blends popular participation and party influence. A workable system must take into account what the people, the parties, and the press can and cannot do. However appealing the image of the omnicompetent citizen, and however attractive the idea of the press as the corrective for defective political institutions, these beliefs are not the basis for a sound presidential election system.
This article is a summary of some of the findings and conclusions of the author’s study of the 1976 presidential election, which was sponsored by the Committee on Mass Communications and Political Behavior and funded by a grant from the John & Mary R. Markle Foundation. The full study will be published this summer by Praeger Publishers (New York) as a book entitled The Mass Media Election: How Americans Choose Their President.
Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is author of the book Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism, published in October 2013, and has written extensively on public opinion, mass media, and politics. He was a member of the Committee on Mass Communications and Political Behavior from 1974–1980.
This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 34, No. 2 in June of 1980. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.