5 Ways TV Has Influenced Presidential Elections


More Stress on Personality and Image

Personality and image have always been influential in presidential elections. FDR was extremely popular, largely because of his intimate "fireside chats," regular radio addresses that gave the American people the impression that he was a friendly, fatherly leader [source: Foote]. No doubt that image helped win him three more elections. Television news coverage has only increased the focus on image and personality in campaigns. Instead of focusing on issues and policy, news programs tend to center around the personal drama, the "who's winning, who's losing" aspect of the campaign, a tendency analysts call "horse race" coverage [source: Dover].

On TV, images and symbols matter. One bad moment can ruin a campaign. Just ask Howard Dean. He was the Democratic frontrunner in the 2000 primaries until an ill-timed "yalp" at an Iowa campaign rally made viewers question his stability [source: Roberts]. Ed Muskie, another primary frontrunner, torpedoed his 1972 candidacy when he shed tears on camera [source: Kaid]. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan, "the great communicator," was able to build his presidential success largely on his folksy, upbeat TV personality [source: Smoller].

Candidates today also control their images on television programming other than news, especially late night talk shows. According to a 2004 survey, more than 60 percent of Americans under 30 learn something about current events from a late night comedy show before they see it anywhere else [source: Farnsworth]. Bill Clinton pioneered this strategy, playing his saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show and admitting on MTV that he wore briefs, not boxers [sources: Zurawik, Hart]. John McCain learned the hard way about the power of late night in 2008. After David Letterman skewered him for cancelling his appearance on the comedian's show, McCain's plan to "suspend" his campaign to handle the country's financial crisis got a good drubbing from the news media [source: Patterson].