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