Decision 2012: Historical Connections
When George Washington became our nation's first president, he didn't have to campaign for voter support. The Electoral College* elected him unanimously on the basis of his leadership during the Revolutionary War and the Constitutional Convention. More than 200 years later, presidential candidates spend months touring the country, giving speeches and shaking hands to convince Americans to give them their votes.
In Washington's time, the printing press was the only media technology available to spread the news. Today, radio, television and the Internet all carry news of the 2012 election, in addition to the print media that have existed since Washington's time.
Presidential elections and the news media that cover them have changed dramatically since the birth of our nation, and so has the relationship between presidential candidates and the press. Where candidates once depended on the media to help them get their messages to the public, today's candidates can use text messages or social media to talk directly to their supporters. Newspapers once tended to align with one political party and slanted their coverage in favor of that party's candidate. While political bias still colors some news coverage, many of today's news media attempt to provide objective coverage of the race, with news organizations reserving their endorsements for commentary segments on television or editorial pages of newspapers.
The relationship between presidential candidates and the press is complex. Reporters depend on candidates to make news, and candidates depend on reporters to help spread their message.
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The invention of television forever changed politics. Before television, political parties were responsible for both disseminating information about their candidates and mobilizing supporters. Political parties shaped and promoted their candidates, from their platforms and policies to their public images. Then television started bringing presidential candidates directly into voters' living rooms. For the first time, people across America — even those who couldn't personally attend a stump speech or a party convention — had the opportunity to see the candidates, hear their voices and watch them interact with reporters, other politicians and average Americans.
Network news coverage was not the only way candidates could get into voters' homes. As the reach and impact of television broadened in the 1960s, so did political action committees, commonly referred to as PACs. These fundraising interest groups attempt to influence the outcome of elections by spending money on efforts to support their preferred candidates and giving money directly to those candidates. Their growth provided an additional source of funding for presidential candidates to purchase television airtime in the form of campaign ads. Though these ads had been around since 1952, PAC money spurred their expansion and evolution.
Campaign ads are a frequent target for criticism and debate. Do they stretch the truth? Are they too negative? Do they unfairly favor the candidate with the most money? But some scholars argue that campaign ads have been misunderstood and play an important, positive role in the electoral process. Some studies, for example, have shown that the ads are a useful source of information for voters — often providing more facts than TV news coverage of the campaign.
Throughout our nation's history, new communication technologies have provided presidential candidates with new ways to reach out to voters. Voters, in turn, have new ways to evaluate the field of candidates. On both sides of the equation, the buildup to an election has become increasingly complex, as what used to be a matter of political party mechanics has become a process involving multiple players with big budgets and an array of tools for shaping the outcome of Election Day.
*You can find the definitions of boldfaced words in the Decision 2012 Glossary.
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