Posted on October 02, 2000 in Washington Watch

The attitudes of Americans toward the presidential candidates are increasingly being formed by sources other than straight news reporting. In fact some recent studies show that non-traditional sources of information have become the predominant forces shaping public opinion.

Daytime and late night talk shows, comedy programs, right-wing talk radio programs and paid political advertising have now become the major sources from which most Americans are getting the information that molds their ideas about politics, in general, and the candidate for public office, in particular.

In fact, these programs have become so powerful that the presidential campaigns have factored appearances on them into their overall strategies.

In this context it should not be surprising that when Republican candidate George W. Bush bounced back in the polls during the last week, many analysts gave the credit to his appearances on two popular daytime TV talk programs: “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Regis Live.”

These two shows are, in particular, very popular with women and pollsters have noted that almost all of the increases in Bush’s approval ratings last week came from women, who were apparently impressed by the candidate’s personality as exhibited on these shows.

Al Gore had appeared on “Oprah” a short while ago, as well. While he received high marks for his performance on the show, Bush received rave reviews for such seemingly innocuous things as his greeting kiss which startled and pleased the popular and influential hostess and the fact that he appeared about to cry while discussing the birth of his two children.

And so while Bush used this talk show to improve his standing among women, Al Gore countered by seeking to improve his position with under 30 voters by appearing on an MTV (the popular music television channel) show–where he answered questions and casually joked with a young audience.

Equally important as opinion shapers are the late night talk show comics. Last week’s New York Times Magazine featured a major article “The stiff guy versus the dumb guy” which focused on the critically important role the late night comics are playing in shaping the public’s impression of the characters of the presidential candidates.

Each night, about 30 million Americans watch as comics like Jay Leno and David Letterman make fun of the weaknesses and faults of the President and those who aspire to be president. The humor has a serous side as well.

A recent study of a respected media monitoring group found that almost 50 percent of Americans under 30 years of age “often get information about the presidential campaigns from late night comedy shows.” The same study showed that “more than a quarter of all adults get campaign news from these programs as well.”

The power of these comics can be seen from two examples in the past: the failed 1988 presidential campaign of Democrat Michael Dukakis and the repeated gaffes that characterized the career of Vice President Dan Quayle.

While both men gave the late night comics plenty of material around which to construct their jokes (most especially, the picture of Dukakis emerging from an armored tank in an effort to appear battle ready and Quayle’s misspelling of the word potato)–what the comics did was to take these errors and elevate them into defining images, from which the candidates could never escape.

In doing so, the comics made the jobs of the presidential campaigns easier and more difficult at the same time. The Bush Campaign wants to present their man as a capable leader with a strong character and their opponent as untrustworthy and inconsistent, i.e. “he’ll do anything to get elected.” While the Bush campaign is helped by the comics consistently making fun of Gore’s exaggerations and his many campaign gaffes, their effort is hurt each night when the comics present Bush as “dumb” and a “bit reckless.” The same can be said for the Gore effort.

In other words, as the article’s title suggests for these millions of Americans whose ideas about the candidates are shaped largely by the comics this election is one that pits “a dumb guy” against “a stiff guy.”

As I have noted before, there are two additional and quite powerful sources of information that help to shape opinion: right wing talk radio programs and paid political advertising. These two differ from the daytime and late night programs in one way. While the programs have a subtle but very real, bias (some, for example, accuse the comics of favoring Democrats–but supporters of President Clinton, who was and still is the subject of often cruel personal attacks, would dispute that), the radio shows and advertising campaigns are overly partisan.

Conservative radio programs daily reach more than 20,000,000 hard core followers. The hosts relentlessly attack Democrats and any issue or individual they define as liberal. They urge their listeners to act on issues and have proven their ability to mobilize. The information they project is clearly biased and reinforces the already existing biases of their audiences.

It should be noted that many of these conservative programs while attacking Democrats, are also quite harsh in their treatment of Republicans whom they feel are not conservative enough.

The final source of alternative information that helps to shape opinion is paid political advertising purchased by the campaigns and by issue groups that want to insert their concerns into the election’s policy discussions. Some ads promote the qualifications or biographies of the candidates, but at least one-third of all of those short 30 second television ads are designed to attack opponents.

While one might assume that since the ads are paid for by candidates their impact would be limited–but because they are often cleverly crafted and repeatedly shown, their impact is measurable. They are often able to shape opinion.

For example, throughout the summer both parties were each spending $1 million per day on television advertising often focusing their purchases in very targeted states where they sought to improve their candidate’s standing. In some smaller communities, the purchases were so extensive that the same political commercials were repeated over and over throughout the day.

One result of the fact that voters are learning about the candidates from these rather shallow sources of information is that voter awareness of the issues and candidates is lacking in depth and detail. Despite the fact that only one month remains before the final vote, voters today appear to know little about the details of Vice President Gore’s healthcare plan or Governor George W. Bush’s tax plan. What they do know is disturbing. A recent poll conducted by Zogby International asked voters to describe what they knew about each candidate. What the poll found was that voters’ descriptions of Al Gore and George W. Bush had changed very little in the past year. Still about one-fourth of all voters defined Bush as a “Daddy’s boy” or son of the former President and many felt he lacks the intelligence to be president. Likewise more than 20 percent of voters define Al Gore in terms of the Clinton “scandal” and express concern with his leadership qualities and lack of candor.

Later this week, the candidates will engage in their first formal debate of the campaign. Those who watch will be exposed to a direct and very traditional source of information and, hopefully, a substantive debate on issues. It will be interesting to see how the polls react and the extent to which public opinion changes following the debate. Will voters approach the debate with an open mind and focus on substance or will they see “a dumb guy against a stiff guy”? And will the debate break down either of those two, by now, entrenched stereotypes?

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