The American presidency has always been a type of elective kingship, our connection to a more civilized time. Americans have historically given the president the same admiration and loyalty as subjects would to a benevolent ruler. This is why character and image are so important in all presidential campaigns. Americans expect their president to uphold the ideal of a model American as well as cater to their every policy preference. A national media, targeted campaign ads, and a decline in parties’ influence have strengthened this ideal and have made a candidate’s persona crucial to winning the White House. Many other strategies are involved in winning the Presidency, but image and momentum are becoming the primary avenues into Washington.
The selling of the president has become an art form with social science and engineering mixed in. Political consultants and negative television bombard the American people each year and tell their version of why good Americans should vote for one candidate and not the other. Consultants are hired in light of the decline in the peoples’ party affiliations and their need for a personable candidate. These consultants use polls in conjunction with social psychology to shape a message that the American public will listen to. However, the system was not always this way (Newman, 118)
In the early days of our country, the political parties took up the burden of advertising their candidate. Simple tactics such as intimidation and threats worked well but they also used the party’s broad appeal to rope in many other voters and consolidate their own base. The candidate’s image was important in the realm of notoriety, the better known among the general populace the better. In most cases the average person was not voting for the candidate but rather the political ideology he represented. This ideology became a reflection of his character.
The parties also handled the promotion of their candidate by utilizing a bevy of marketing techniques. For example, in 1824 the Democrats used everything from sticks made from hickory to campaign songs in order to promote Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson and his legendary reputation (O’Shaughnessy, 20). The parties promoted many candidates in a similar manner throughout the years; William Henry Harrison used a slogan, Henry Clay had a mascot Raccoon, and even Lincoln used photographic prints of himself. All these methods would have been ineffectual if the parties were not backing or were not strong enough to promote effectively. This has been proven by the historical lack of third party successes.
The mood of the nation shifted slowly, shying away from the old party ties to the candidates themselves. People wanted leadership and a hero to follow, they got that in Teddy Roosevelt. TR was a powerful president and spectacular leader. He gave the American public a modern hero to revere and use as their compass regarding matters of wisdom and courage. This is shown in his ability to garner 24% of the vote in the 1912 election splitting the Republican Party in two and allowing the Democrats to gain control of the White House. This was the beginning of image centered voting, whether the people or the candidates knew it or not.
The next step in this process comes from Franklin Roosevelt, who helped the image voting process but also brought on a new surge of party loyalty for the Democrats and Republicans. The Great Depression that brought about Roosevelt’s reforms strengthened poorer and smaller sections of the country. Because these destitute areas received increased aid and support the people were loyal not only to the Democratic Party for life but also to Roosevelt himself, a key to his 4 trips to the White House. Here one sees the incredible phenomenon embodied by the term “yellow dog democrat,” meaning a person who would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican. The party’s propaganda machines began at this point to slow down and candidates came forward into the limelight.
Candidates such as Eisenhower increased this voting pattern exponentially. With a slogan ”I Like Ike” and an enormous recognition from World War Two, Eisenhower won two elections with little to no challenge. His use of campaign strategy and tactics set the stage for future presidential hopefuls. The next in line was John Kennedy. His new “Camelot” brought a sense of challenge and purpose to the American people showing them sixty years after Teddy Roosevelt that the hero president was not dead. However, the best example of image driven voting and the importance of character is with Richard Nixon.
In 1960 Nixon ran for President against Kennedy with grand repercussions for presidential candidates. The campaigns differed in style; Kennedy bringing Camelot to America with his good looks and good breeding and Nixon offering a seemingly grumpy and out of touch man, not inspiring and certainly not a winner. The people wanted Kennedy as their hero and this was mostly due to his wonderfully strategized campaign that made him look like a prince. Nixon’s campaign on the other hand did not delve too deeply into the presidential hopefuls character. In their debate, Kennedy came across to the public as cool and confidant while Nixon was sweaty and reminded most Americans of their angry, irritable boss back home. The image portrayed to the American public was that of a man not ready to deal with the challenges inherent in being President of the United States of America. As history will attest, Nixon lost to Kennedy by the narrowest popular vote margin in American history (Excluding this year),
Flash forward eight years and much of what was changed. Kennedy is dead but Johnson, who railroaded mounds of legislation through congress while he escalated America’s role in the war in Vietnam, carried on his legacy. Then Johnson has decided not to run and leaves the Democrats with the likes of Hubert Humphrey. The stage is set for the return of Richard Nixon, but one who has learned from the past, a new Nixon. He undergoes a reconstruction of sorts that forms him into a political machine that can fit into any mold you set before it. While this turned off many voters, this new marketing strategy was the cornerstone of Nixon’s success.
Nixon began to downplay his weaknesses, and instead used manipulation to overwhelm the public. In a tactic that he would use his entire presidency, Nixon would move from “scene to scene, quickly, lest understanding set in”(Character, 146) for the public to scrutinize. This was done well without the constant media watch guard that would de-rail such an attempt today. He was able to “re-invent” himself through these brief glimpses of his personality, new tidbits that constructed a new candidate after merely eight years. Nixon also portrayed himself as his own man, with little or no help from his staff. This way he was able to show his independent status to a growing politically self-sufficient majority.
But a shift in one’s image is not enough in today’s presidential campaign system. A candidate must convince the public that he is the best man for the job and in many cases this means demonizing the opposition (Wayne, Democracy, 164). This negative advertising was never utilized better then when Bill Clinton along with his redneck superstar consultant James Carville was wielding the brand. In 1992 against George Bush and Ross Perot and in 1996 against Bob Dole and Perot again, Clinton and his aid Dick Morris were masterful in using soft money, money spent by outside interests not in direct support of a candidate, to advance his cause while tearing holes in his opponents credibility. In 1992 Clinton consistently attacked Bush’s integrity and was so effective that it seemed to many that Bush was not adequate in any function of the presidency (Newman, 16). He toted Bush as a tool of big business and backed it up with facts and figures from Bush’s record. More important than this would be the specific targeting of negative ads to certain regions, crafting the ads to manipulate the public response in just the right way to elicit the desired response (Newman, 18).
In 1996, Clinton employed similar techniques to the 1992 campaign but with a significant handicap to his image and credibility. The Paula Jones and Whitewater scandals had damaged Clinton’s marketing potential along with the health care debacle but, in a seemingly miraculous move, Clinton came back to take the presidency once again. He did this largely in part with the issue ads paid for by soft money and used against his opponent, Bob Dole, in strategic areas. This utilization of pro-issue/anti-candidate marketing tools made Clinton better in the public mindset by default. Of course he was not letting his own image stay in the muck with those scandals but instead he reversed them and he and the Democrats slowly gained ground in the congress. The strategy is simple and it worked almost to perfection, in this case it got Bill Clinton elected president twice.
This use of negative advertising is not new to American politics. It has been around since the 1800’s and the time of Thomas Jefferson when accusations of a graver nature were made such as the raping of women and gross debauchery if Jefferson was elected. Candidates have always had to draw distinctions between themselves and their opponents and it has been done a national level more or less. But with the national media and a hounding press corps along with American’s insatiable need for more dirt and intrigue, the rise in these negative ads has increase dramatically. This brings in the final and perhaps most important key to a good presidential image, the press.
In Joe Klein’s book Primary Colors, reporters are referred to as “scorps”, short for scorpions. Perhaps this is a bleak outlook on the press’s role in a political campaign but in many ways the terms holds some validity. The press is usually the only direct connection to the candidates that the people have and what they consider to be important about the candidate is what they will report. This in turn is what most Americans will think is important about a candidate from policy stances to an off-color quipping remark. The press can make or break a candidate especially in the primaries. This is the most crucial of all times to have the backing of the press in order to stay in the race. The media will give a candidate momentum which inspires donors to give him more money and that creates more momentum. This is a vicious cycle that puts the press at the heart of the matter.
In any political campaign a candidate must look good to the reporters and the news media, not necessarily the people. The media in a sense become the people, or usurp their role without the diversity of opinion or the common self-restraint that most people have. Candidates and voters alike become disillusioned with the system and become cynical as a response. Most Americans come upon this very honestly but the system perpetuates itself, creating more and more distrust. The press covers more of the negative actions of the presidential candidates, which makes the public increasingly cynical causing the press to print a larger number of negative articles. Candidates then have little choice but to make negative ads or sling mud in order to reach the public attention away from the press. From here the press does something very odd, they throw support to the one candidate that seems to have the most momentum in order to create a front runner, while the other candidate is waiting in the wings for six months down the line when the press switches gears and suddenly the other candidate is leading the pack.
This style was nearly perfected this year in the Gore/Bush election. Momentum swung from one candidate to the other almost like clockwork, six weeks with Bush and then six weeks with Gore leading only to have Bush “suddenly” surge in the poles to take a slim lead right before elections. Whether it was good journalism or a self-fulfilling prophecy no one can say but it is no small coincidence that Bush and Gore are so close in the poles. These arbitrary movements in the press’s opinions affect voter opinion of the candidate’s validity as president and therefore their estimation of the candidate’s image and character. The press expanded their influence even further this year when they began to call elections for certain candidates in east coast states before west coast states had a chance to finish voting. Some voters on the west coast may have been influenced into avoiding the poles. This is just another way the press abuses their powers.
The president’s image in an election setting is determined by many different factors. From media to marketing public and press alike closely scrutinize the presidential character. The history of the emergence of an image centered voting public is very important as well. The decline in the parties influence and marketing ability making it necessary for candidates to go out on their own and sell themselves to the American public. This includes the actual selling by the candidates afflicting the public with multiple negative images. The use of these ads and how they affect the media coverage has also been important. Finally the media’s over involvement in candidates’ affairs and their biasing of the people against politics and the candidates. All these build up to show the presidential image of our current political system.