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The Ballot Box Wars: Political Campaign Communication and the Future of American Democracy

by Robert V. Friedenberg

Abraham Lincoln once claimed that public sentiment is everything. "With public sentiment nothing can fail," he said, "without it nothing can succeed." Until recently public sentiment in this country has been shaped largely by our political leaders and by the press. In recent years political consultants have become major players in the shaping of public sentiment. As the consulting industry, and it's leaders do like to call it an industry, has grown dramatically over the last three decades, so too there has been a growing concern over the future of our Democratic institutions, as evidenced by the theme of the 2000 Angelo State University Symposium, "Constructing Political Candidates: Are We Deconstructing Democracy?"

I will address three widely used communication practices of political consultants that are often alleged to undermine our Democracy. First, I will examine negative campaigning. Then, I will examine the widespread use of television in political campaigns. Thirdly, I will examine the growing use of narrow media. In each instance, I will suggest that the claims that our Democracy is at peril because of these characteristics of contemporary campaigns are exaggerated.

Negative Campaigning

Perhaps no current practice of constructing political campaigns generates more controversy than negative campaigning, or as it is often called today, attack politics. Yet, attack politics have been with us since the inception of the nation. Though many examples could be used to illustrate the pervasiveness of negative campaigning throughout American history, the negative campaigning engaged in during the Harrison-Van Buren election of 1840 was so vicious that it altered the very nature of presidential campaigns. George Washington had set the precedent that a presidential candidate did not campaign for the office. Rather the office should seek the man according to Washington. Virtually every presidential candidate after Washington did campaign in a variety of behind-the-scenes and private ways, perhaps most notably Andrew Jackson. Until 1840, however, they all avoided making public speeches clearly on behalf of their own candidacies.

In my research of significant speeches in American presidential campaigns, I have found that the first Presidential candidate to actually take to the public platform on behalf of himself was William Henry Harrison. Importantly, he did so because of negative campaigning. In 1840 the Whigs turned their backs on their two most accomplished national leaders, Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. Rather, they nominated the sixty-eight year old Clerk of Courts of Hamilton County, Ohio, General William Henry Harrison. Thirty years earlier, Harrison had distinguished himself in the Indian wars in frontier Ohio and Indiana, and in the War of 1812. He had served as Governor of the Indiana territory, and as a Congressman and Senator, as well as Ambassador to Columbia. For almost a decade prior to his 1840 nomination, Harrison had been either in Columbia or in semi-retirement as the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts. Unlike the controversial Webster and Clay, Harrison had no public record on most current issues. Hence, the Whigs nominated him hoping to turn him into a military hero who was not controversial, much as the Democrats had done earlier with Andrew Jackson.

Incumbent president Martin Van Buren's Democratic attack machine went after Harrison with a vengeance. The attacks were exceedingly personal. Harrison was senile. He could not even discuss the issues of the day intelligently. President Van Buren's positions were widely known, but, the Democrats claimed, Harrison was so incompetent that the Whigs were hiding him and he would not appear in public. The Democrats went on to claim that Harrison did not have the physical health the job demanded. They claimed that Harrison had slept with Indian squaws during his years in the Army. Democrats savaged the man they called "Granny Harrison" and "General Mum." [1]

Clearly, there was one way that Harrison could effectively dispel the negative campaign being waged against him. General Mum could speak. Starting on June 11, 1840, in large part as a consequence of the negative attacks being waged against him, William Henry Harrison broke with tradition and became the first presidential candidate to deliver a public speech on behalf of his own candidacy.[2] This speech was the first of approximately two-dozen major addresses delivered by Harrison during the 1840 campaign. He often included prophetic passages in his speeches in which he defended his decision to speak. At Chillicothe, Ohio, he told his audience:

I sometimes fear that upon me will fall the responsibility of establishing a dangerous precedent to be followed in future times....I am here because I am the most persecuted individual now living; because I have been slandered by reckless opponents to the extent that I am devoid of every qualification physical, mental, moral, for the high place to which a respectable portion, at least, of my fellow citizens have nominated me. I am here at the urgent solicitation of my friends, and because to appear among my fellow citizens was the only way to disapprove one, at least, of the many allegations that unscrupulous enemies have laid against me. And this much you must have already perceived, that I am not CAGED, that I am not the old man on crutches, nor the imbecile they accuse me of being, nor the prey to disease my enemies would have it believed.[3]

The presidential election of 1840 is not an isolated example drawn from our early history. I use it to dramatize the fact that negative campaigning has been with us throughout our entire history. Moreover, the nation has survived and prospered. Students of argumentation and debate are aware that people rarely make changes unless they are dissatisfied with the present system. Debaters talk about showing a need for change. Hence, it is only natural that challenger candidates utilize negative campaigning. Indeed, the terms negative campaigning or attack politics can be misleading. Based in part on the work of Princeton Professor Larry Bartels, Kathleen Jamieson and her associates at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication draw a critical distinction between attack ads and comparative ads. Attack ads, she suggests, focus on the opponent's failings. Often 90 percent of the content of such ads consists of negative attacks on the opponent. Contrast ads contain explicit comparisons between the candidate's qualities, record, or proposals and the opponent's. Typically 70 percent or less, often ranging as low as 30 percent, of the content of such ads consists of negative attacks on the opponent. The remainder of the ad, often the majority of the ad, focuses on the contrasting qualities, record, or proposals of the candidate.[4] As Jamieson points out, the imprecise grouping of both attack ads, and comparative ads is unfortunate. If we distinguish between attack advertising and comparative advertising, the amount of negative advertising is dramatically reduced. Indeed, Jamieson and her associates conclude that the amount of negative advertising, attack advertising has not changed significantly since 1960.

The benefits of comparative advertising, on the other hand, are considerable. A host of studies suggest that comparative advertisements provide voters with more information that either attack advertisements, or advocacy advertisements, which simply advocate a candidate by focusing on the positive qualities, record, or proposals of the candidate. Voters prefer contrast. It provides them information. It highlights differences. Negative campaigning is a legitimate concern when the content of ad after ad, speech after speech, is almost exclusively negative. However, this is rarely the case. I argue that negative campaigning does not contribute to the deconstruction of democracy to the extent that many of it's critics contend.

Television and Political Campaigns

A second contemporary practice important to constructing candidates is the use of television. The contemporary political use of television involves at least two practices that help to construct candidates but are often claimed to simultaneously contribute to the deconstruction of democracy. First, television has magnified the importance of the early primaries, and hence in effect lengthened the election season. Second, television favors visual images over words, language, argument, and reasoning. Again, it seems to me that while there may be an element of truth in these charges, the destructive nature of these characteristics is exaggerated.

Prior to 1960, the primaries rarely played a major role in the selection of national candidates. In fact, most states did not hold them. Leaders of the major party machines in the densely populated big cities and in heavily populated states typically controlled large blocs of delegates who were often beholden to them for jobs and other favors. In earlier times, these party leaders determined who their party would nominate.

On the morning of October 28, 1959, sixteen people met in the living room of Robert F. Kennedy's home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts to finalize the basic strategies for the campaign that they hoped would carry John F. Kennedy to the White House. The candidate dictated the strategy. Kennedy made it clear that he felt the nomination had to be won in the primaries. The country had never elected a Catholic president. The country had never elected someone as young as Kennedy at age 43 to the presidency. The country had elected only one president in the preceding 60 years directly from the United States Senate. From the very outset of his campaign, John Kennedy recognized that only if he could win the primaries, only if he could demonstrate his vote getting ability, and thus deal with the leaders of the Democratic party from a position of strength, could he hope to persuade the leaders to nominate him.[5] Kennedy's 1960 success proved that a nomination could be won through the primaries, though in that year only about one-third of the states even held them.

The importance of primaries grew dramatically between 1968 and 1976. In 1968, after a series of dramatic primaries between candidates opposing the Vietnam War, Robert Kennedy (who was assassinated on the evening of his victory in the California primary) and Eugene McCarthy, the leaders of the Democratic party ignored the wishes of what appeared to be the vast majority of the party for an anti-war candidate. Rather, party leaders dictated the nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey who had not run in a single primary, and who was largely tied to the policies of President Lyndon Johnson who had prosecuted the Vietnam War vigorously. As a consequence, in state after state between 1968 and 1972, state and local Democratic party organizations made the decision to select delegates to the national convention through primary elections.

A consequence of this reliance on the primaries has been to dramatically increase the influence of television. As political communications scholar Dan Hahn has observed, "television increased the importance of primaries by making state primaries nationwide events."[6] Now, with so many states holding primaries, the impact of a candidate's performance in a New Hampshire primary debate, the impact of a candidate's speech during the early South Carolina primary, or the ads a candidate runs during the early Arizona primary, all resonate well beyond the borders of those states. Nowadays, success in the early primaries is perceived as critical to securing the nomination.

Television perceives itself, and justifiably so, as performing a public service in broadcasting news, representative commercials, speech excerpts and debates from the primaries, and what it does in the process is lengthen the election season. Prior to the 1960's, the major party candidates kicked off their general election campaigns with major rallies on labor day weekend and it could be said in all seriousness that the nation's attention did not focus on the election until the World Series was over in mid-October. Today, unless a national candidate has announced an exploratory committee and begun to raise money two years prior to the election, that candidate is not taken seriously.

Many of us become bored, perhaps even disenchanted when we read and hear of the minutia of political maneuvering months before the election. Yet, what might the alternative be? Would we prefer that candidates not campaign in the primaries? Would we prefer that television not cover the primaries? I scarcely think any of us feel that the less information available to us the better. Would we prefer the methods of prior generations, allowing party leaders to negotiate who would be nominated for office? Such a procedure runs counter to the very democratic principles that we value so highly. Few of us would want to stifle the people's voice in the selection of the major party candidates. Yes, our campaigns have grown longer, but would we really prefer the older system? I don't think so.

A second way in which television impacts on the construction of political candidates is inherent in the medium. It is a visual medium. Hence, often image tends to trump issues. We construct candidates to convey an image.

As long time political consultant Jay Bryant has observed, candidate image may be defined through the answer to this question: What kind of person is this candidate?[7] Developing an answer to the question for the voter is a three step process:[8]

Step one: the candidate and his advisors select an image of the candidate that they wish to portray. That image, if it is to be at all believable, must be based on the personality and beliefs of the candidate. So, for example, throughout the spring preceding his June 12, 1999 official announcement, George W. Bush began to refer to himself as a compassionate conservative, testing here in Texas how that phrase, which had actually been used in 1988 to describe his father, would be received when applied to him.[9] Pleased with the findings, Bush announced his candidacy by claiming that "I am running because my party must match a conservative mind with a compassionate heart."

Step two: the candidate and his advisors select issues that demonstrate the image in action. Notice, the stress is on issues that lend themselves to creating and demonstrating the candidate's image. Ideally, these should also be issues that are of paramount importance to voters and ones which the candidate feels are of paramount importance to the nation. However, the critical criteria is that these are issues which enable the candidate to demonstrate his image. Listen to Bush in his announcement as he explains what it is to be a compassionate conservative:

"It is conservative to cut taxes. It is compassionate to help people save and give and build. It is conservative to reform welfare by insisting on work. It is compassionate to take the side of charities and churches that confront the suffering which remains. It is conservative to confront illegitimacy. It is compassionate to offer practical help to women and children in crisis. It is conservative to insist on education standards, basics and local control. It is compassionate to make sure that not one single child gets left behind."[10]

Each of these issues and his stands on them reinforces the image of Bush as a compassionate conservative. Whether taxes, welfare, illegitimacy and education are the four paramount issues in the minds of voters, or whether they are what Bush perceives to be the four paramount issues the nation confronts, can be argued. But what cannot be argued, is that each of these four issues provided Bush a means to illustrate his compassionate conservatism, to build his image. Notice, too, that although these lines are from a speech, they can be readily translated into 30 and 60 second advertisements. During the primaries, at the convention, and into the early part of the general election period, advertisements frequently pictured Bush, his wife, and his Vice Presidential candidate Dick Cheney with children in school settings.

Step three: the issues are presented with pictures and language that reinforce the image. In a campaign such as that between Bush and Gore, pictures clearly are used to stimulate mental images. When we construct our candidates by utilizing issues in a secondary role, as a means of advancing images, as so often happens with the use of television images, some have argued that we are deconstructing democracy by minimizing the importance of language, argument, evidence, and logical reasoning in the resolution of public policy questions. If democracy is based on competition in the marketplace of ideas, we seem to be deconstructing democracy when we allow the demands of television to govern the way we discuss public issues. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in the one activity which is reputed to best give the public an opportunity to evaluate the candidates on the issues, campaign debates.

In the pre-television era, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas essentially debated one issue, the future of slavery in the territories. Their format called for a 60 minute opening speech by one candidate, a 90 minute response by the second, and a 30 minute rejoinder. This year the format of the first debate between Bush and Gore called for a two minute answer to a question by one candidate, followed by one minute of rebuttal by the other, followed by a three-and-one-half minute exchange on the issue. Lincoln and Douglas spent three hours in each of seven debates, a total of 21 hours, debating one issue. Bush and Gore spent six-and-one-half minutes debating one issue. Thus, television places a premium on the visual and tends to minimize the importance of words, language, argument and reasoning. However, I would argue that it is not necessarily bad if image trumps issue. In fact, it is a perfectly rational approach in certain ways to the situation we all confront in the voting booth. After all, most of us rarely agree entirely with one candidate and disagree entirely with the other. All of us are unable to anticipate the major issues of the future, and most of us recognize that candidates will not always perform in office as they pledge during a campaign. Finally, given our own understandable shortcomings, none of us know how to handle all the major issues of the day, and given these realities, casting a vote for a candidate whose values, beliefs, priorities, competence and trustworthiness appeal to us makes perfectly good sense. That television facilitates our doing this better than many earlier media is not necessarily a problem. Rather, it may be a virtue.


The final element of constructing contemporary political candidates about which I wish to speak today is narrowcasting. The computerization of voting data, census data, and other types of information in recent years allows consultants and candidates to tailor messages to very precise audiences. Consultants analyze audiences accurately and more precisely than ever before, thus allowing candidates to adapt their messages and deliver them through narrowcast media such as direct mail, videocassette mailers, and phone calls. The effect is that I may receive communications from a candidate treating those issues that the campaign feels I am interested in. You, perhaps living right next door to me, might receive information from the same candidate treating totally different issues. In both cases, the campaign will have attempted to personalize the message as much as possible. All media can to some degree be targeted. However, the ability of narrowcast media to be targeted extremely precisely, and the understandable dramatic growth in its usage in the last two decades could conceivably contribute to the deconstruction of democracy.

Narrowcast media, for example, tends to encourage candidates to take extreme positions and thus contributes to the harsh shrillness of American political rhetoric. In the past, fringe candidates whose message appealed to only a limited number of citizens soon withered and disappeared, or broadened their appeal by moving to the political center. Today, however, like the product that captures only five or ten percent of the market, but continues to flourish, so too a fringe candidate can continue to flourish. Narrowcast media seem to encourage political figures to take extreme positions that tend to polarize society rather than unify it.

Additionally, the very fact that it is narrowcast, rather than broadcast, makes the messages sent via these media highly inviting means to campaign negatively. Some of the more serous recent abuses of negative campaigning have been made through narrowcast media, particularly the telephone. For example, it is likely that negative narrowcast campaigning played a key role in winning the Republican nomination for Senator Robert Dole in 1996. The Dole campaign spent nearly one million dollars planting negative information about Dole's primary rivals through the use of what his campaign called "suppression phone banks" operated by Campaign Tel. Ltd. of New York City. This negative phone operation enabled the Dole campaign, during the critical primary month of March, 1996, to contact approximately 1,400,000 voters in key primary states. As Dole broke from the pack and wrapped up the nomination, the Dole campaign spent more money on its phone operation ($877,000) than on his television campaign ($871,000).[11] It was Dole's negative phone operation, not his advertisements, that Pat Buchanan, no stranger to hardball politics, characterized as "over the line."[12] More recently, remember the Republican primaries in South Carolina and Michigan this past spring. First, John McCain claimed that George Bush's operatives in South Carolina had questioned his ethics in thousands of negative phone calls. The next week, the Bush campaign claimed that McCain's operatives in Michigan had used negative phone calls to suggest he was anti-Catholic. Narrowcast political media concern me for they tend to fragment the population, not unify it, and more than other media, they invite unethical campaigning. On the other hand, in light of the enormous use of narrowcast media in recent years, I am reassured by the comparatively slight number of occasions that it seems to have been abused. Still, this relatively new campaign tool, by virtue of it's very nature, demands our vigilance. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt addressed a question as perplexing to the nation of his day. Said Roosevelt:

"Now it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck-rake, speedily becomes not a help to society, not an incitement to good, but one of the most potent forces for evil."[13]

The contemporary construction of our political candidates has produced some filth on the floor, but we should not be disheartened. It is easy to be critical of the muck and indeed perhaps to turn our backs on it altogether. Certainly our electoral system is by no means perfect, but I question whether the way in which we construct candidates is the real problem. With all the emphasis on the how to of political campaigning, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that candidates must have firm reasons to campaign. They must have a firm set of beliefs and they must have sound conceptions about how to translate those beliefs into policy. The most sophisticated political campaign is, after all, nothing more than the means to an end. Given this, it seems to me that the most serious problem with our system are not in the campaign process as much as in the governing process. Many citizens perceive public officials spending excessive time and effort running for re-election rather than tending to the public's business. Many citizens perceive public officials unable to speak their minds rather speaking only what the polls suggest. Many citizens perceive public officials casting votes on the basis of the interests of their largest contributors rather than on the interests of their constituency and the country. I submit that a real deconstruction of democracy takes place when public officials govern to win election, rather than win election to govern. I urge you, as I think Roosevelt would, not to flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing, nor to turn your back on it. I urge you, as I think Lincoln would, to be part of the public sentiment that is ultimately so necessary to clean it up.


1. Accounts of this campaign can be found in any good biography of Harrison. See Dorothy Goebel, William Henry Harrison: A Political Biography (Indianapolis: Indiana Library and Historical Department, 1926), Freeman Cleaves, Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939), and James A. Green, William Henry Harrison: His Life and Times (Richmond: Garrett and Manic, 1941). Harrison has not been the subject of any recent biographies, though Robert V. Friedenberg presents an examination of the events leading to Harrison's first campaign speech, a rhetorical analysis of the speech itself, and a discussion of the effects of the speech. See the introductory chapter of his forthcoming book, Speeches of Consequence: Pivotal Addresses in American Political Campaigns (To be released by Praeger in 2002).

2. On June 6, 1840, while traveling to his first scheduled speech in Ft. Meigs, Ohio where he had led the army in a great victory over the British during the War of 1812, Harrison spoke extemporaneously from his hotel balcony in Columbus. There are no records of the Columbus speech which preceded his first scheduled speech on June 11.

3. The text of the Chillicothe address can be found in the Calumet Tippecanoe and War Club (Springfield, Ohio), October 6, 1840, p. 1.

4. The definitions used here are drawn from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Everything You Think You Know About Politics And Why You're Wrong (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 99. The percentage figures for these definitions are found on page 113.

5. The best account of this meeting is that found in Theodore White, The Making of the President, 1960 (New York: Pocket Books, 1961), pp. 64-69. White's account is based largely on his interviews, several months after the meeting, with two of the participants, Theodore Sorensen and Kenneth O'Brien.

6. Dan Hahn, Political Communication Rhetoric: Government and Citizens (State College Pa., Strata Publishers, 1998), p. 213.

7. Jay Bryant, "Paid Media Advertising," in James A. Thurber and Candice J. Nelson, eds., Campaigns and Elections American Style (Boulder, Co., Westview Press, 1995), p. 85.

8. Dan Hahn, Political Communication Rhetoric, op. cit., pp. 228-229.

9. Bill Minutaglio, First Son George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty (New York Tines Books-Random House, 1999), pp. 14-17.

10. "Bush For President Announcement Address," at the official campaign web site (

11. Dwight Morris, "The Big Black Hole," Election Line, May 3, 1996 (

12. Howard Fireman, "Hunting the Angry Voter," Newsweek, (March 18, 1996), p. 26.

13. Louis Filler, (ed.), The President Sneaks: From William McKinley to Lyndon B. Johnson (New York: Capricorn Books, 1965), p. 50.