Has Television Reshaped Politics?
by Angus Campbell

*A chart comparing percentage of electorate reached by radio and television with voter turnout has not been included in this reproduction.

The advent of television in the late 1940's gave rise to the belief that a new era was opening in public communication. As Frank Stanton, president of the Columbia Broadcasting System, put it: "Not even the sky is the limit." One of the great contributions expected of television lay in its presumed capacity to inform and stimulate the political interests of the American electorate.

"Television, with its penetration, its wide geographic distribution and impact, provides a new, direct and sensitive link between Washington and the people," said Dr. Stanton. "The people have once more become the nation, as they have not been since the days when we were small enough each to know his elected representative. As we grew, we lost this feeling of direct contact-television has now restored it."

As time has passed, events have seemed to give substance to this expectation. The televising of important congressional hearings, the national nominating conventions, and most recently the Nixon-Kennedy and other debates have appeared to make a novel contribution to the political life of the nation. Large segments of the public have been given a new, immediate contact with political events. Television has appeared to be fulfilling its early promise.

Impressive as the audiences have been, however, it is not safe to assume that they reflect a basic change in the nature of political communication or in the force of its impact. Television has no doubt succeeded in making a sizable part of the electorate direct witnesses to episodes in recent political history, but the effect of this exposure remains a question. Has it raised the level of political interest in the American electorate? Has it broadened public information about political issues and events? Has it brought the ordinary citizen closer to the government he elects? These are not questions to which we can hope to find simple answers. During the period of television's phenomenal growth other great changes were also taking place. The nation's economy moved to unprecedented levels. The trend toward urbanization was accelerated. The high schools and universities poured millions of graduates into the electorate to take the place of a much less educated older generation. To isolate and dissect the contribution that television made to public affairs during this restless period would require surgery of a delicacy we cannot at present perform. The evidence at hand does not have this kind of precision, but it is instructive.

The most commonly accepted indicator of public involvement in politics is the turnout in national elections. Presumably, if television has made political communication more effective a larger portion of the electorate will make the effort to vote. In fact, there has been only a slight rise in the turnout figures during the last ten years. In the presidential elections of 1952, 1956, and 1960 the turnouts-that is, the proportions of adult citizens who voted-were considerably higher than in the elections of 1944 and 1948, but if we drop back to the period just before the war we find that the turnouts in 1936 and 1940 were almost as high as they have been in thc most recent elections. There has been a small proportionate increase in the presidential vote during the television era, although it has fluctuated and at its lowest point in 1956 (60.4 percent) exceeded by only a percentage point the high of the pre-television period.

The off-year congressional elections do not show even this increase. The turnout in the off-year elections during the 1950's was never as high proportionately as it was in the off-year election of 1938.

We gain a perspective on recent figures if we make a similar comparison of turnout in the elections preceding and following the development of radio as a medium of mass communication. Radio broadcasts of campaign events were put on the air as early as 1924, but radio did not achieve full coverage of the electorate until after the 1932 election. Turnout in the early 1920's rose substantially when women received the vote and reached a new high point in 1928, a level that was maintained in 1932. Between the elections of 1932 and 1940, however, the turnout records jumped more than 8 percentage points; the off-year congressional vote increased even more markedly-from 33.7 per cent in 1930 to 44.1 per cent in 1938.

These increases in the national vote, as radio reached the less educated and less involved sections of the population, are impressive. This was a time of depression and political urgency, of course, but the turnout in 1932 when the depression was at its worst point was scarcely higher than it had been in 1928. It was not until 1936 that the presidential turnout moved up sharply, and we know that Roosevelt's great majority in that year was based not so much on defecting Republicans as on citizens who had not previously voted. Some factor not present in 1932 brought them to the polls four years later. It is hard to believe that radio, exploited with great artistry by Roosevelt, did not play a crucial role.

Election statistics are notoriously difficult to interpret, but one thing is apparent: The advent of radio was followed by a general and significant increase of turnout in national elections; the arrival of television was not. Whatever new ingredients television has brought into the political life of this country, it has not yet greatly affected the willingness of the average American to go to the polls.

The election statistics are not the only data at hand. Since 1952 the Survey Research Center has been conducting national surveys of the electorate immediately before and after each presidential election. In these surveys we have asked our respondents two questions intended to indicate the extent of their personal involvement in the campaigns. One of these questions asked whether the respondent "personally cared which party won the presidential election" and the other asked "how much interested" he had been in "following the election campaign." These questions were asked in an identical form of those we interviewed in 1952, 1956, and 1960.

The pattern of response to these questions varied over the three elections in very much the same way that the total turnout varied. The proportion who "cared" how the election turned out declined somewhat in 1956 from its 1952 level and then rose again in 1960 to its 1952 position. The proportion who described themselves as "interested" in the campaign also slid off in 1956 and then came back in 1960 to a level slightly higher than that of 1952. In other words, the degree of political involvement expressed in the three campaigns paralleled the actual turnout.

But while interest and involvement fluctuated, there was a tremendous increase in television coverage during these same years. If television had demonstrated a unique capacity to activate political interest among its viewers we should find a substantial increase in the number expressing high interest over the 1952 to 1960 period. This we do not find.

Neither do we find an increase in the extent of political information of our respondents. It is not easy by any means to assess the range of facts, beliefs, hearsay, and folklore that people have regarding politics. In our interviews we ask people to talk to us in a conversational way about the parties and the presidential candidates, and to tell us the good points and bad points of each. From their answers we can extract all the bits and pieces of content that make up their "image" of the two candidates and the two parties.

This image varies from one election year to the next. The Democratic Party, for example, was seen much more favorably in 1956 than it had been in 1952 when "the mess in Washington" was still fresh in the public mind. The image of Adlai E. Stevenson was considerably more favorable in his first campaign than it was in his second. But aside from these changes in the quality of the images of parties and candidates there are also changes in the total number of bits of information and belief that make up these images. The public has more on its mind about the candidates and parties in one election than it has in another; the images are more elaborated in some years than in others. We may assume that it is largely the mass media that provide this detail.

We find when we examine the evidence from our three surveys that the 1952 election brought out the greatest volume of comment about the candidates and parties. People were more voluble about what the parties stood for, what their strengths and weaknesses were, what groups they represented than in either of the succeeding elections. They also had a fuller picture of Eisenhower than they had of Nixon. On the other hand, they had a good deal more to say about Kennedy in 1960 than they had had about Stevenson in either of his campaigns, a difference partly accounted for by negative reactions to Kennedy's religion. If we consider the total volume of comment in the three election years we find a pattern like that of the measures of involvement-highest in 1952, lowest in 1956, higher again in 1960.

These comparisons of the national elections during the era of television raise serious doubt as to whether this new medium, despite its tremendous audience, has greatly altered the basic relationship of the electorate to its national government. In its first decade, it seems neither to have elevated the general level of political interest nor to have broadened the total range of political information. It has greatly extended the purely visual dimension of political communication; the public no doubt finds it easier to form an image of its political leaders through television than it did through the older media. In individual cases this visual image may have a decisive influence on political choice, as it apparently did with an elderly respondent who told our interviewer she couldn't vote for Nixon because she "didn't like the look in his eyes, especially the left one."

There may also be occasions when public opinion as a whole may be moved one way or another by the uniquely visual quality of television communication. There is reason to believe the television debates in 1960 provide such an instance. But these reactions, either individual or collective, do not reflect any greater depth of commitment or understanding of political matters than existed before television.

Why has television not produced a lift in the political involvement of the electorate similar to the rise that followed the introduction of radio? The explanation lies in the answers to three fundamental questions: Was there a virgin area of the population not being reached by the mass media when television came on the scene? Was television as effectively different from existing media as radio had been a generation earlier? Was there an unsatisfied demand for political communication in the electorate when television appeared?

The first of these questions is perhaps the easiest to answer. There was in fact no remaining frontier for further penetration by the mass media when television appeared in the late 1940's. At that time 90 per cent of the population reported listening to radio and 80 per cent read a daily newspaper. So far as simple availability of information was concerned it seems clear that all but the largely inaccessible population-the very old, the very dull, the very antisocial-was being reached. During the 1930's radio must have made contact with millions who were beyond the reach of printed media. But there was very little room for further expansion with television.

The question of what new element television introduced into the total flow of public communication is perplexing. Despite its capacity for immediate visual presentation, television has not proved as revolutionary a medium of political communication as many expected it would. Rather than adding an important new dimension to the total flow of information to the public it seems largely to have taken over the role of radio. Like radio, it can be attended to passively without the effort required by the printed media. This is not to say, of course, that television does not have unique qualities; it is because of these qualities that most people now prefer to watch political programs on television rather than listen to them on radio. But the impact does not seem to be much greater in one case than the other.

The essential problem of all political communication is the character of the public demand for it. No one can doubt that many persons make a special effort to watch public-affairs programs on television; they are seeking information. If they came from that part of the population that is out of contact with the other media and lacks information, television would certainly contribute to their political education and stimulation. But this is not the way things happen. If there is one dependable law in the world of mass communication, it is that those most likely to seek information are already the best informed. Thus we find that the people who follow the election campaigns most closely on television are precisely the same ones who read the most about them in the newspapers and magazines.

It is among those at the other end of the scale, the quarter or third of the population that is generally uninvolved and uninformed, that television might have hoped to have its greatest impact. This is where the potential gains were greatest. But this group, alas, is very incurious about politics; its demand for information is exceedingly modest. Its members can apparently be induced to watch an occasional "spectacular," like the conventions or the debates, but their detachment from political matters is undisturbed.

Radio succeeded in rolling back this barrier of apathy appreciably during the 1930's by making it possible for people to receive at least rudimentary political information without the effort of reading. But these gains do not seem to have been extended greatly during the 1950's. Television has shown a capacity to catch the public eye but it has yet to demonstrate a unique ability to engage the public mind.

Angus Campbell was the director of the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan. He was a professor of social psychology and the author of The Voter