Public Opinion

Public Opinion

Public opinion is a dominant force in American politics and especially so during the long electoral process. If a presidential candidate fails to hit it off with the media at the first primary, then that presidential candidate is likely to have a political mountain to climb up to the November election.

The media : "Television and the press dominate the setting of American politics." (Bowles). Research produced by the Statistics Department in Washington for the end of the 1990's indicated that in one year the average American would:

watch about 1000 hours of network television watch about 400 hours of cable television spend 150 hours reading a newspaper spend 100 hours reading magazines

Of these, the prediction for the first decade of the 21st century, was that the figures for network television would stabilise for a number of years and then slightly decline; the hours spent watching cable television would increase and that reading whatever would stabilise but not increase.

There are more than 3000 television and radio stations in America.

60% of Americans subscribe to cable television with the figure growing annually.

There are over 30 million Internet subscribers in America - more than in the rest of the world put together - and this figure continues to grow. However, there has been little research into this medium and its impact on politics. The November 2000 election was the first national election in which the Internet could have had a real impact but little research has been done on whether this was an influential medium for this particular election. However, developments in its use for voting in future elections may encourage more people to vote, therefore, political parties may have to start using the Internet with greater frequency if its use is to become the norm in politics.

It is very important that a politician builds a powerful media image whether they wish to succeed in local or national politics. Writers such as Bowles suggest that the use of the media and coverage by it has replaced campaigning as it has been understood in America. Campaign media consultants can make or break a presidential campaign with decisions that they make. Newspapers can also have an input into a campaign agenda in that it is an editor who will decide what to put in a paper on the first page and if the ‘story’ appears to be a boring one that will not stimulate the public to purchase a paper, it will not be published. The trend is for a local paper to carry a local story that is then picked up by a national television company.

"Television’s interpretation of primary election results, or of candidates’ behaviour on the campaign trail, can enhance or undermine candidates' prospects in the next primary election." (Bowles)

National television has ensured that candidates pitch every word that they say with great care. What a candidate does is also guided by television. What a candidate will do on a campaign trail and what he says is usually determined by the availability of television coverage. It is the primary purpose of a campaign manager to ensure that a candidate gets this. Speeches have now become orientated to television and 30 seconds sound bites have become the norm rather than a classic speech. Short, sharp quotes are far more media friendly than a long speech on financial reform, welfare reform etc.

Behaviour on television is also likely to be picked up as the figures above show that it is a very heavily used medium. In the 2000 head-to-head debates between presidential candidates Gore and Bush, Gore was considered to have a greater advantage over Bush because of his perceived greater intellectual ability. In fact, Bush came out of the debates with much credit and Gore lost out especially when he was thought to have 'squared' up to Bush during one debate. Gore may have seen his move (leaving his lectern and moving directly towards Bush) as that of a man of determined action. That Bush was seen to 'keep his cool' did a great deal to enhance his image. The key word is image. Gore was seen as the candidate who 'lost it' while Bush was seen as the man who when challenged, came through, with dignity and calm. 

 Also speeches on specifics are far more open to being analysed and picked over than short speeches that frequently have no substance to them. Speeches are now made for the media and not for the gathered audience. An uninspiring speech can be disastrous for a candidate as it will not be published in the newspapers and it will attract the wrong type of attention from the television stations. Purely political speeches are also considered to be a risk as they will be too boring for the public. The trend in recent years has been to make short speeches attacking your opponents - negative campaigning - and looking for the appropriate photo opportunities.

"The focus of television news is firstly upon image, secondly upon phrase, and only incidentally upon substance." (Bowles)

The trend of attacking your opponent at presidential campaign level has drifted down to other election campaigns. In the 1988 gubernatorial election for North Carolina, chimpanzees were used to represent the Republican candidate in a Democrat television advert. In 1990, in Texas, the Democrat gubernatorial candidate stood in front of enlarged photos of men he had had executed to demonstrate that he was in favour of the death penalty while stating that his opponent was soft on crime. In America these are called "attack" or "comparative" adverts.

The increasing popularity of negative advertising stems from evidence that they are far more successful than positive campaigning in arousing voter interest. Negative adverts also put opponents on the defensive and invariably they have to produce a negative response themselves which simply spirals the process of negative campaigning. In simple terms, it would appear that the voting public prefer and remember negative adverts that criticise opponents as opposed to adverts stating what he/she will do as a matter of policy.

Money: evidence points to the fact the allegiance to parties is on the wane. Voters appear to be voting for a candidate who appeals the most. Therefore, those who have access to the public via the media would logically have a greater chance of success. Access to the media can only be gained as a result of access to money. Buying television time is expensive (especially advertisements) ; mail shots are costly and well presented public meetings also cost a great deal even if the substance to them is not great. However, the wealth of Ross Perot and his Reform Party, had little impact on the 1992 and 1996 elections. Therefore, the wealth that the Democrats and Republicans can accrue is important to elections.

FECA (1974) and its following amendments, have minimised contributions from businesses and trade unions. Raising money is now down to the individual. FECA was designed so that elections meant less about money and more about the issues at stake. Ironically political success in America now seems to depend more than ever on individuals and their ability to raise money and even less on issues. This trend has impacted national, state, Senate, House and gubernatorial elections i.e. nearly the whole of America’s political landscape.

For the House of Representatives:

1976 : average spent by an incumbent for an election = $80,000
1976 :      "         "      "  challenger for an election          = $50,000

1986 :      "         "      "  incumbent  "    "     "        = $350,000
1986 :      "         "      "  challenger  "    "     "        = $110,000

1994 :      "         "      "  incumbent  "    "     "       = $525,000
1994 :      "         "      " challenger   "    "     "       = $200,000

For the Senate:

1976 : incumbent = $750,000
1976 : challenger = $450,000

1986 : incumbent = $3.25m
1986 : challenger = $1.9m

1994 : incumbent = $4.25m
1994 : challenger = $3.9m

Those who have greatest access to these sums of money are invariably white, educated and middle/upper class. Is this why the Capitol building and the White House is mostly filled with white males? Does this structure lead to certain groups actively involving themselves in government and elections and others keeping themselves out? How far does the availability of money focus the thoughts and views of the potential voting public? What signal is sent to Americans if those who campaign either on television or through mail shots etc. are white and mostly male?

What incentive would this be to a racial minority to involve him/herself in politics?

By pushing the rules of FECA to the limits, national party committees can contribute a maximum of $73,620 to a House candidate and $1.73 million to a Senate candidate in a well populated state. As the most important political states are well populated, this means that the emphasis of a political campaign targets these states and that is where the money will be directed. Therefore those who are most bombarded with political adverts and those in the most populated states - Texas, California, Florida and New York. With the exception of Texas, the other three states contain a large number of minority groups. The evidence clearly indicates that these groups are not involving themselves in politics. Would a Puerto Rican vote for a middle class white male in a state etc. election in Florida? Would a poor Mexican labourer feel a need to vote accordingly in California? Therefore is the system simply allowing whites to perpetuate what has gone on for years?

There are elections to the House of Representatives every two years. Therefore there is a constant need for a Representative or a challenger to raise money. Could this explain why in recent years there has been a larger than normal turnover of incumbents who have quit the House and gone into a new career? Is the pressure of work too much? Is the cost of being a Representative too much? The higher than normal turnover has stimulated a healthy competition from challengers who sense a greater opportunity of winning in a fight between two new contestants. So-called "open seats" are worth the effort and money to campaign. Ironically they might be open seats purely because the newly retired incumbent could not afford to carry on. One issue that has been raised by those who study US politics, is that if the incumbents in the House are more concerned about raising revenue and fighting elections, what commitment can they show those people who voted for them i.e. what work can they do for them?


MLA Citation/Reference

"Public Opinion". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2006. Web.






Find lyrics free


Popular content

Follow Us