How The Media Seduced And Captured American Politics

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The parties also lost their traditional recruiting function. Formerly, the ambitious sought political office after a period of party service, often at lowly stations. Now the young headed directly toward electoral office with party registration their only evidence of loyalty. In fact, many considered a close affiliation with day-to-day party affairs to be the mark of a hack; a fresh, nonpartisan face appealed more to the electorate than a veteran party standard-bearer. The spread of primaries at the expense of conventions opened the way to further end runs around the organization. In addition, state after state adopted laws designed to loosen the monopoly of parties over the nominating process, thus magnifying the importance of independents. In some states, for example, an eligible voter need only appear at the polls and declare himself at that moment either a Democrat or a Republican to be entitled to cast a ballot in a party primary.

Initially, reformers rejoiced at these trends, and the regular parties seemed to be the first casualties. But media politics knew no factional boundaries. Just as surely as it undermined traditional party practices, it also withered the voluntary base of reform politics. The parties depended on patronage, reformers on participation. What regulars would do as part of the job, independents would do from commitment. Yet a media campaign did not leave much for volunteers to do.

THE NEW media managers cared little for traditional canvassing where party workers or volunteers went door to door to discover preferences, deliver literature, and argue the candidate’s case. The foot soldiers were untrained in modern interviewing techniques; they worked at odd hours; they often returned with useless material; and even good campaigns could not provide full voter coverage. Large banks of telephones were more reliable. Paid operators called scientifically selected numbers; the message was uniform; computers swallowed the responses and spit out the printouts. Ironically, phone banks had originally been a volunteer activity. Supporters took home lists and made personal calls; but better management dictated closer control. The new system is expensive, and there is no way of knowing if phone canvassing, even confined to “prime” lists, is effective; but every campaign for high office finds it necessary.

A paid television commercial is the modern substitute for campaigning.

Polling, too, is an indispensable part of the media campaign. This is not new, but its intensity is. “The calls go out every night randomly, 150 or more,” wrote B. Brummond Ayres, Jr., in The New York Times in 1981, of the Reagan Presidency, “to homes across the country.” The interviews last a half hour; they ask every kind of question bordering on the voter’s interest and public matters. Then the computers whiz and calculators click; “earlier interviews are thrown into the mix” and “in a matter of hours President Reagan and the officials of the Republican National Committee have in hand the latest intelligence needed to tailor a speech, a program or a policy.” Richard Werthlin’s Washington firm is paid $900,000 a year for this “tracking” of the popular mood.

Previous Presidents relied on a handful of trusted advisers and erratic, and usually unsolicited, reports of party leaders and friends from across the country. But now all campaigns use polls. Indeed, despite their frequent and sometimes flagrant errors, the press and the media treat their results as news stories; columnists scatter ratings throughout their interpretations; analysts worry that their wide use has become a surrogate election, even affecting the actual outcome. Polls are, however, so much a part of the candidates’ strategy that some state legislatures have moved against the release of selected parts and require the publication of the full survey. And one poll alone won’t do. Anxious managers and candidates can hardly get enough of them, especially in the climactic weeks of the campaign. What is also important is that the survey is bought and requires no use of volunteers.

THE MEDIA CAMPAIGN is all business. There is none of the congenial chaos that characterized traditional politics. At headquarters a few people mill about numberless machines. Everything is computerized. Paid employees run the terminals; paid telephoners call numbers from purchased printouts; rented machines slap labels on directmail envelopes. Mercenaries grind out “position papers,” and press releases are quickly dispatched to a computerized “key” list of newspapers, radio, television stations, columnists, and commentators. “What they have created,” wrote the New York Times reporter Steven V. Roberts, “is an electronic party.”