President Reagan is often hailed today by Republicans as the greatest president of our time and some even go far as to say that he was the best president since Abraham Lincoln. While this assertion is disputed, there is no question that President Reagan possessed a unique flair and character that was atypical for a United States president.
By looking at the last presidential race (1980) before televised cable network programs like CNN became popularized, I assert that the presidency has become more character focused than issue oriented. I delve briefly into the childhood upbringing of Reagan that exposes his character as someone who was a young model citizen as well as someone who possessed the ability to command a crowd’s attention. Then, I evaluate the 1980 National Election Survey (NES) to assess the public’s attitude towards the presidential candidate’s policy positions on four key issues: inflation, unemployment, the energy crisis, and the Iranian hostage situation. Next, I discuss how the television has changed the landscape of political participation by creating an outlet where political spectators focus more on the presidential candidate’s character than policy stances. Lastly, I conclude by discussing a study done in Michigan on the respondent’s television viewership habits such as how often respondents watch CNN and at what time of day.
Part of the reason President Reagan was popular was because of his upbringing in Tampico, Illinois, where he recounted his childhood as “one of those rare Huck Finn- Tom Sawyer idylls” (Wills). As a kid he was a drifter, attending different schools every year between the ages of 6-10. Ronald joined his mother’s church, acted in her skits, dated her pastor’s daughter for eight years and clung to the pastor as a father figure. In many ways, Ronald was the model kid. He worked in Sunday school, led the 1926 Easter sunrise service, and was a river beach lifeguard (Wills). In all the roles Ronald played he would be “repeating an American instinct to claim a simplicity his circumstances belie,” which means that Reagan never acted.
Ronald lived through the depression, when his father, Jack, lost his job, placing the family on government relief. The New Deal rescued the Reagan family. Ronald landed a job in Davenport, Iowa, where he worked as an announcer in a broadcasting studio as a “supplier of entertainment, comfort, distraction, and healing symbols” (Wills). Then he moved West to take a bigger radio job as a sportscaster, where he would often in vivid detail describe “live” baseball games that he was not seeing by use of telegraph bulletins- making up innings when the wire failed. Listeners loved his exuberance and went to the state fair to pursue it.
With the skills and tricks of audience command he had developed in long radio and brief television apprenticeships that he would later use in politics, he moved to Hollywood in 1937. Ronald thought highly of Hollywood saying it was full of dreamers and declaring that Hollywood led the country in church attendance and lagged far behind in divorce rate. Reagan was more naïve and equally chaste. For example, Ronald plays Cowpoke in ''Tennessee's Partner'' (1955) does not realize that the ''nice place you have here, ma'am'' is a brothel (Wills). Throughout his acting career, he developed a reputation as the ''perfect Hollywood chastity symbol, one whose innocence became indistinguishable from ignorance" (Mills).
With the help of the National Labor Relations Board, he became president of the Screen Actors Guild longer than any other person from 1947 to 1952 and again in 1959-1960 (Wills). However, his career spiraled downwards in the 50s, which saw Ronald transition from a television career to the voice of G.E. The transition was the perfect vehicle for entering national politics in the service of industry.
Reagan vs. Carter
In the 1980 NES researchers evaluated whether American citizens were familiar with each candidate before arriving at a meaningful evaluation of the public perception of each candidate. While the major presidential candidates were initially better known than their rivals with 95% of respondents claiming to know something about Reagan and Carter, the public gained knowledge of those rivals at a steady rate. However, less serious contenders for the presidency did not make any significant gains in familiarity by the end of the campaign year. For example, only 64% of respondents claimed to know something about John Connally, who ran on the Republican ticket. His familiarity only grew 4% by last survey before the November election. On the other hand, George H.W. Bush started at 38% in February and grew to 73% by October. This data suggests that the media has a monumental role in forming the process of political attitude information. In addition, the data suggests that the presidential campaign may be useful for providing information about relatively unknown contenders but may not be as beneficial surrounding familiar candidates (Markus).
By analyzing the NES pre-election materials, we can grasp public approval of Carter’s handling of four major issues that he dealt with in his first term: inflation, unemployment, the energy crisis, and the Iranian hostage situation. When asked about the inflation-unemployment trade-off, a considerable number of respondents were unwilling or unable to state an opinion. This number grew as the year went on. By October, 40% of the sample passed on the question. In addition, the public was even less certain about where Carter and Reagan stood on the issues. By October nearly half of the respondents did not have an opinion about each candidate’s position. In brief, this uncertainty by the respondents reveals that it was unlikely that Reagan won or Carter lost in November because of their stands on inflation versus unemployment (Markus).
Another issue that was asked to respondents was on their ability to locate themselves and the candidate’s attitudes towards whether federal expenditures for health, education, and related services should be cut. In aggregate, Carter was viewed as being in favor of keeping the current level of government services while Reagan was in favor of cuts. Nevertheless, 1 in 5 respondents did not know how they felt on the issue. In the survey closest to the Election Day, 28% of the sample did not know where Carter stood on the continuum, while 35% could not place Reagan. Yet still, it was Carter’s stance, not Reagan, on this issue that aligned more with the average citizen (Markus).
Respondents were also asked about each candidate perceived position on defense spending. While the public correctly saw Reagan as favoring increased defense spending with 61% of those responding saying Reagan favored “increased spending,” respondents could not comprehend Carter’s position. Approximately 15% had no personal preference on defense spending, 20 to 25% could not locate Carter on the continuum, and a slightly larger fraction could not locate Reagan. Thirty-nine percent of respondents favored increased spending which is comparable to the proportion of respondent’s idea of what Reagan’s plans to increase defense spending. This insight reveals that Reagan’s stance on this issue may have given him an advantage over Carter (Markus).
The last issue this survey dealt with the question of the American-Soviet détente. On the continuum, roughly 40% of respondents believed that Carter was in favor of détente, especially in the last months of the campaign, while about 20% of respondents believed that Reagan was opposed. In addition, nearly 20% of respondents did not know where Carter stood on the issue and 30% did not know where Reagan stood on the issue. With such a high non-response rate, most likely neither candidate was particularly advantaged by their position (Markus).
Additionally, the 1980 NES materials provide a year-long view of public approval with Carter’s first term performance in four key areas: inflation, unemployment, turmoil in Iran, and the energy crisis. One of the most striking details of this data is that significantly more people had opinions on Carter’s first term than they did on his second campaign platform. For example, only 1 in 10 people declined to rate Carter’s performance, as compared with about 1 in 5 on the four policy continua outlined earlier (Markus). The data also demonstrates that the public’s opinion of Carter’s first term was predominantly negative. On each of the four issues, an average of roughly 50% of respondents either disapproved or strongly disapproved of Carter’s policy positions. This information aligns with the idea of the retrospective voting model where elections are generally best interpreted as judgments about where society has been rather than where it ought to go. (Fiorina 1981).
Based on the issue, there was a range from 10% to 30% of the respondents who did not know where the two presidential candidates stood on the issue; a problem that persisted all the way up until the election. However, as time passed the campaign did serve to increase awareness of the candidate’s positions, albeit more so for Reagan than Carter. Based on the data, one can conclude that Reagan's landslide victory was not a result of the conservative movement or his stance on any issue. Rather Carter’s loss was because of voter’s dissatisfaction with Carter’s first-term and considerable doubt in Carter’s ability as a political leader.
The Rise of Cable Television
Using eight National Election studies conducted by the Survey Research Center at The University of Michigan, researchers found that candidate personal qualities has become more important for television dependent voters since 1960. Although it is hard to find clear evidence of television’s impact, there is reason to believe that the importance of candidate image may be greater for voters who depend upon television. News organizations reinforce this idea by downplaying cognitive content. Since television networks barely cover the issues, people who relied primarily on television for campaign information did not learn much about the candidate’s priorities. As a result, television viewers were left with information weighted heavily in favor of characteristics of the person, rather than issue positions such as voting criteria (Graber).
In this study, researchers obtained results based upon open-ended questions and party identification, then put together a table that includes the unstandardized regression coefficients, standard errors, and sample sizes for each media use group. In the category of personal qualities and traits, the research exposes the fact that candidate personal qualities have been more important for the television group than for the newspaper group in every election since 1964. In 1952 and 1956 elections the weights for personal qualities were relatively low for the television group (b averaged under .02). Yet in the 1960 election, the weight doubled to .034. In 1964 and 1968, the weight rose to .05, then to .09 in 1972, .07 in 1976, and back to about .05 in 1980. The weights for personal qualities for the newspaper group also rose from 1956 to 1960, but since that time—except for 1972—they have remained at a relatively low level, smaller than those seen for the television group (Graber).
Although personal qualities and traits have become more popular traits in recent American presidencies, the level of education is not systematically related to the weight of candidate personal qualities. The research found that citizens with lower levels of formal education are not more likely than those with higher levels to choose candidates on the basis of candidate personal qualities. In fact, candidate personal qualities were most important for college-educated television viewers (Graber).
Since the 1960s, the audience and the content of political television have changed markedly. While political programming in the 1950s was dull and easily avoidable, with a few small exceptions such as Eisenhower’s spot advertising, political programming in the 1960s created more provocative newscasts and much more short campaign ads. Developments in programming and the declining television costs changed the political television viewers. Although there was a high correlation between social status and viewing of programs about the presidential campaign, that association vanished by 1964 (Graber).
Once television developed into a mass medium for political information in the 1960s, citizens with little interest in politics were more likely to be exposed to campaign information. Party identification was more important to the vote of the television group than the newspaper group in the three elections prior to 1964. The average weight for newspaper readers in these three elections were .17 compared to .22 for television viewers. Then for both newspaper readers and television viewers, the weight of party dropped tremendously. Post-1964 the weight normalized again for newspaper readers. However, candidate-specific factors became tremendously more important to television viewers after 1964 (Graber).
There are some scholars who argue that television may ultimately depend more upon what citizens believe television can do than upon the medium itself. The belief in the intimacy of television makes a difference in the political process. This belief can emphasize the personal qualities of politicians rather than the purely political qualifications, or how well equipped he/she is to handle a role. At the same time, viewers believe they have "seen for themselves," and their visual impressions suggest to them the "real" personal qualities of the familiar face. In all of this, the contribution of television is made through its sensory realism, through the emphasis it places on symbols directly accessible to experience. The heterogeneity of views on complex policy matters and public problems can be factored down to simple alternatives. The search for "truth" becomes a search for "trust." (Lang and Lang, 1968: 210-211).
Television has created a political landscape where most participants are more focused on the image rather than the issues. If this trend is likely to be countered, then news organizations must be held more accountable. Instead of vicarious politics, they need to encourage more participatory behavior.
In the 1980s the news media was transformed by new technologies that provided real-time news and the phrase “CNN effect” captured the idea that real-time communications technology could provoke major responses from domestic audiences and political elites to global events. In a series of telephone interviews that were conducted in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1982, 84.6% of the population stated that they watch local news and 82.9% stated that they read a daily newspaper. When asked how often they watch, CNN viewers are about equally divided among “less than once a week” (25.3% in Ann Arbor; 21.9% in Grand Rapids), “about once a week” (21.5%; 25.0%), “more than once a week” (30.4%; 25.0%), and “about every day” (22.8%; 28.1%). About the same proportion of cable subscribers in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids are aware of (88.7%; 91.2%) and watch CNN (70.4%; 70.1%). In Ann Arbor, average viewing of CNN on the previous day is 8.65 minutes; in Grand Rapids, it is 17.13 minutes. In both cities, the most popular type of news to watch by CNN viewers is national news (87.3% in Ann Arbor; 79.2% in Grand Rapids), followed by sports (51.3%; 43.8%) and business news (38.8%; 42.7%) (Reagan).
In terms of the relative use of the news media, there wasn’t one respondent who reported watching any imported local station’s news. The percent of CNN subscribers that report watching local TV news is like non-subscribers. Ann Arbor CNN viewers and subscribers spent just as much time with local news as did non-subscribers. The same is true of subscribers in Grand Rapids; and Grand Rapids CNN viewers watch significantly more local news than do subscribers, about eight minutes more (Reagan).
In both cities, CNN viewers and subscribers watch about equal amounts of network news. CNN viewers in Grand Rapids spend more time with network news than do non-subscribers, about 10 minutes more (Reagan). CNN viewership tends to be spread throughout the day, reaching a peak in the early morning, dropping before noon and rising steadily throughout the rest of the day. Network viewing peaks around the traditional news times: early morning, noon, around 6 p.m. (and 7 p.m. in Grand Rapids because of a delayed NBC newscast), and in the late evening. CNN is viewed in those time periods where gaps are left in the network offerings: 9 to noon where no respondent reported viewing network news, in the middle afternoon where 1% to 4% watch network news and the mid-evening where about two to six per-cent watch network news (Reagan).
For CNN viewers, the average amount of time spent with each medium shows the networks far ahead (8.65 vs. 25.90 minutes for the networks in Ann Arbor; 17.13 vs. 35.94 in Grand Rapids).
In Ann Arbor, CNN came out slightly behind the paper (34.3%; 7.1%) and significantly behind the networks (18.2% vs. 37.9%). In Grand Rapids, CNN was slightly behind the networks (32.9% vs. 36.7%) but significantly ahead of the paper (60.5%; 25.0%). In all comparisons except CNN and the newspaper in Grand Rapids, a large percentage (28.6%; 44.0%) of respondents selected "neither," "both" or don't know" (Reagan).
The results of this study reveal that CNN viewers are more extreme in their use of the media; they watch about six minutes more than local news networks. The key finding of this study is that no diversion was found away from any of the news media. Further, the results suggest that CNN is a credible and useful as the other media. It is viewed throughout the day which suggests that the networks find their audiences peaking during their early and late evening newscasts. Since CNN viewers spend considerably less time with CNN than with the other news media, suggests that CNN is used as a supplemental service or a filler as the viewer switches between other programs.
Once television and CNN became popularized in the political arena, there is no reason to believe that Americans will see another boring president like Franklin Pierce or Grover Cleveland in the near future. Since Reagan, every president, besides maybe George H.W. Bush, has had some sort of high entertainment value such as: phenomenal oratory skills (Clinton and Obama), the most likely person you would want to have a beer with (George W. Bush), or celebrity status (Donald Trump). Although it is difficult to assess exactly how the television altered the modern presidential candidate, there is evidence that suggests that Americans expect different values in their president than in the past. Reagan was a beneficiary of this cultural shift because he possessed the unique ability to command the crowd as he displayed in his brilliant speech “A Time For Choosing;” he learned this skill while being actively involved in his mother’s protestant church as well as his start in “live” radio broadcasting.
After Reagan won the California governorship and campaigned in the 1980 election, there isn’t any evidence that suggests his landslide victory was because of policy- despite some Republicans today hailing him as the founder of modern Republican thought. Since it was not issues that proved his landslide election, then the only other two options for explaining this landslide is that the American public detested President Jimmy Carter’s first term or loved President Reagan’s character. I believe that the reason for Reagan’s large margin of victory was a combination of both; did not help Carter’s track record did not help his case for president but neither did Reagan’s character and speaking ability. Fiorina calls this insight the retrospective voting model, where elections are generally best interpreted as judgments about where society has been rather than where it ought to go.
If I were advising a political prospect on what to do increases his/her chances of becoming president I would make visibility the number one priority. In the most recent election, for example, the American voters watched an entire political cycle of news outlets bashing now-President Donald Trump with articles and memes all over the internet. However, this attention only ascended his rise to the top of the Republican Party and then into the position of the most powerful man in the world. Although it is still hard to prove the evidence of how television has changed the mold of the American president, I believe more research should be conducted on how social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter have altered the presidential mold. I believe that this research will reveal that the American public has become even more desensitized to the political issues of the day and more attuned to their entertainment value. The popularization of CNN has led to compartmentalized news where new political ideologies like the alt-right have their own platform in the Breitbart News Organization. This type of media coverage creates more cult followings and complicates our current American political system.
Further, if you look at the actual platform of the Republican Party in the last election, Jeb Bush arguably had the best education policies among many other policies. However, he did not last in the race because he had low visibility. In short, he was a boring guy and nobody cared what he had to say. I believe that all American presidents in the foreseeable future will have extremely high visibility, meaning that they will have a large social media presence if they want to get elected. When FDR was president attention was directed towards the radio, when Reagan was president attention shifted towards the TV, now when President Trump was elected attention has been directed towards social media. I contend that if you want to win the American presidency you have to follow the attention.
Fiorina, Morris P. 1981. Retrospective voting in American national elections. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Graber, Doris (1976) "Press and TV as opinion resources in presidential campaigns." Public Opinion Quarterly 40:285-303.
Lang, Kurt, and Gladys Engel Lang (1968) Politics and Television. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.
Markus, Gregory. “Political Attitudes during an Election Year: A Report on the 1980 NES Panel Study.” The American Political Science Review. September 1982. Web.
Reagan, Joey. “Effects of Cable Television on News Use.” St. Louis Journalism Review. Web.
Woodward, Vann. The President and Us. New York Times. January 1987. Web.
Wills, Garry. “Reagan’s America Innocents at Home.” Text.