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Blog 3: Campaigning since Nixon

Campaigning since Nixon’s run in the 1968 presidential election has focused on the idea that in order to be successful, a campaigner for public office must “advance from ‘politician’ to ‘celebrity'” (28). It’s no surprise that Nixon’s campaign employed this strategy to its fullest, as Nixon’s advisers had to transform a man who, eight years prior, was seen by the general public like this:

Spooky

…into someone who looked more like this:

Dreamy...well, more so than before.

The idea of the President as a heroic figure, “…a combination of leading man, God, father, hero, pope, king…” (26) is one that was cultivated heavily during Nixon’s second run at the Presidency. It was during this campaign that campaigning as advertisement was used to its fullest and most successful, allowing a man who had for so long been considered a loser, a grouch, a man out of touch with the sensibilities and trends of his time to rise to the status of celebrity, a true man of the people, for the people. This was done thanks to the notion that appealing to the emotion, rather than the logic of the television viewer, would garner the most votes. In the following, this method is used heavily, evoking a television viewer’s sense of fear in the hope that by implying that Nixon was the only one to save America from nuclear destruction, Communist takeover and the hardships of war, voters would come out in droves to vote for him (spoiler alert: it worked).

In this sense, little has changed in terms of how Presidential candidates campaign on television. So often, how a candidate says something, rather than what his stance on the issues is, takes precedence. In this McCain ad, McCain delivers an appeal to pride without once speaking to any relevant issues of his time, similar to how Nixon appealed to fear in his 1968 ad.

In this ad, Obama also appeals to an American sense of pride and charity. He does, however, touch on some relevant issues of his time, but most of the commercial focuses on what a great guy Obama is, rather than logically explaining why health care reform was necessary, for example. The inspirational music in the background implies that what Obama did in his past was indeed the right thing to do, without any mention of why it was right or how it would allow him to lead the country as a whole, rather than the smaller, more specific communities he lead in his past.

The point of this comparison is to show that presidential television campaigns are very similar to as they were during Nixon’s campaign, honing in on a viewer’s emotions more than logic. As Raymond K. Price noted when writing about the best way to appeal to voters,

We seek to engage his intellect, and for most people this is the most difficult work of all. The emotions are more easily roused, closer to the surface, more malleable… (38)

Perhaps the most striking difference between the campaigns of then and now is the viciousness with which modern candidates attack their opponents. Two instances most recently evident include this Obama ad and this McCain ad. During the 1968 campaigns, such negative ads were non-existent or, at least, less shameless than these examples. Additionally, the advent of the Internet and social networks have allowed candidates to reach younger audiences at rates unseen in the past. This, of course, lead to the number of young voters (18-29) to turn out in slightly less embarrassing numbers, rather than their typical dismal numbers in the 2008 election, primarily for Obama, who used the Internet and Facebook more than McCain to campaign.

So, even though the concept of appealing to emotion rather than reason remains a hallmark of political TV campaigns, they have also become more typical of a Miller Lite campaign that bashes its competition, the shortcomings of that competition and makes implications on how supporting that competition will make one’s life markedly worse as the primary appeal for why one should vote for a candidate. (Note: my apologies for making people watch that Miller Lite commercial. I really hate them, but the similarities between its shamelessness and the shamelessness of the aforementioned campaign ads had striking similarities, in my view. Also, most political campaign ads, like Miller Lite, are tasteless, misleading and only sell well because of the image they create, not necessarily the product they produce.)

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  1. March 2, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Great post. Well thought and nicely structured. Keep it up.

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