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Home arrow Business & Finance arrow Building a business of politics the rise of political consulting and the transformation of American democracy

Political Public Relations

Few political scientists writing in the 1950s and 1960s paid much attention to the actual conduct of political work. Advances in survey research had revealed that individuals held rather durable attachments to one party or the other, leading many prominent scholars of the time to conclude that efforts to sway opinions during the course of a campaign had marginal effects at best.1 If elections mostly reflected voters’ partisan identities, there seemed to be little point in studying the practical side of politics.

However, scholars who cared to look discovered an important transformation underway as politicians and political parties incorporated new technologies, such as television, and experimented with new techniques intended to bring voters out to the polls. Even if most citizens made up their minds weeks, or even months, before the first Tuesday in November, candidates and their campaigns pressed hard up until the very end to make sure their supporters turned out to vote. Political scientists who studied the strategies and resources deployed during a campaign found paid professionals taking an increasingly important role in the American political system.

One such scholar was Stanley Kelley, who wrote an early assessment of this shift in his book Professional Public Relations and Political Power (1956). An outgrowth of his PhD dissertation, Kelley’s book described the growing use of public relations and advertising in political campaigns, from Whitaker and Baxter’s rise in California through the innovative use of television in the 1952 presidential election. However, it is Kelley’s retelling of the 1950 Maryland Senate race that perhaps best illustrates the changing character of political work.2

The 1950 election pitted four-term incumbent Democrat Millard Tydings against a political newcomer, John Marshall Butler, a Baltimore lawyer, in his first campaign for elected office. Tydings appeared to be a safe bet to win a fifth term: serving in the Senate since 1927, Tydings won his previous election by a margin of more than 130,000 votes in a state that was 70 percent registered Democrats.3 In 1950, however, Tydings chaired a Senate subcommittee that investigated Senator Joseph McCarthy’s allegations of Communists in the State Department. When the Tydings Committee concluded that McCarthy’s claims of Communist infiltration were “a fraud and a hoax,” the Republican senator from Wisconsin and his conservative allies targeted Tydings in his bid for re-election.4 Four months later, Butler defeated the incumbent senator by more than 40,000 votes.5

Stung by defeat, Tydings claimed he was the victim of smear tactics and dirty tricks, a charge that prompted a Senate investigation into the alleged use of “scurrilous and untrue printed matter designed to deceive the electorate.”6 At issue was a photo distributed by the Butler campaign that purported to show Tydings in conversation with a former Communist leader.7 The picture was a fake: separate images had been joined in a composite made to look as if Tydings and the man were together. In the Senate investigation that followed, attention turned to Jon Jonkel, a public relations man from Chicago hired to run the Butler campaign for a fee of $1,250 a month.8 Jonkel denied authorizing the photo, or even recalling paying for it, but his work on Butler’s Senate race drew attention to the role of paid outsiders in the conduct of campaigns.

Jonkel joined Butler’s staff on the recommendation of Ruth McCormick Miller, editor of the conservative Washington Times-Herald and a supporter of Joseph McCarthy. Although Jonkel lacked any previous campaign experience, he astutely perceived that Tydings had failed to appreciate how his actions against McCarthy played back home. This weakness formed the basis of Jonkel’s campaign strategy. As Jonkel explained during testimony before a Senate subcommittee, “Senator Tydings may have conducted the loyalty hearings in a way that would satisfy a reviewing judge. ... But there was another place that he was working and that was in the court of public opinion, and there he very obviously did not satisfy the people.”9 Maryland voters may have doubted whether Communists really infiltrated the State Department, but McCarthy’s accusation that Tydings had “whitewashed” his committee’s report raised questions as well. Jonkel turned this lingering doubt into the central theme of the campaign: “We worked with the fact that a very, very big doubt existed in the minds of the people of Maryland. ... I said, ‘Let’s not get into the business of proving whether

or not it was a whitewash, let’s stay in the business that a doubt does


exist. 10

Stanley Kelley described Jonkel as “an able public relations man” whose strategy of “merchandising doubt” about the incumbent’s integrity helped to peel away supporters of Tydings, especially African American voters, who overwhelmingly supported the Republican Butler in 1950.11 Working on behalf of an unknown challenger with limited resources, Jonkel made the most of what he had by drawing upon a range of techniques and technologies. Jonkel even conducted rudimentary surveys in order to identify his opponent’s chief weakness and craft his candidate’s messages accordingly. When Tydings bombarded the radio airwaves with lengthy five- and ten-minute programs in the closing days of the race, Jonkel ran cheaper thirty-second spots just before and after each broadcast that raised questions about the senator’s record.12

These were the tools of modern public relations, and they proved to be more effective than the traditional methods of a political machine. In fact, Kelley argued that Tydings’s reliance on local party operatives led him to overlook how precarious his position was with the voters until it was too late.13 As Kelley put it, a machine politician like Tydings was reluctant “to give central authority to a man who did not have intimate knowledge of, and involvement in,” local politics.14 In the end, however, it was the outsider Jonkel who had the edge, an experienced public relations professional accustomed to “stepping from a train or a plane and organizing ... a campaign to crystallize public attitudes.”15 With Jonkel’s help, Butler was “better prepared to meet the problems of mass communication politics than ... Tydings and the Democrats,” despite lacking a viable party organization from which to draw support.16 In Jonkel, Kelley saw how “the old methods of the political machine are superseded by the newer ones of the mass media specialist.”17 The lesson, Kelley concluded, is that “the politician whose thinking has been dominated by the logic of the boss . [is] guilty of idolizing an ephemeral technique.”18

The Senate report issued in August 1951 denounced the involvement of “outside influences” in the race, including Jonkel and several of McCarthy’s aides who took part in the effort to defeat Tydings. Criticizing what it called “a big doubt campaign,” the Senate report went on to describe the use of tactics designed to “undermine and destroy the public faith and confidence in the basic American loyalty of a well-known figure.”19 In effect, Jonkel ran a successful negative campaign. This, by itself, was not illegal; however, the Senate investigation also revealed that Jonkel deposited campaign contributions directly in his personal bank account on more than one occasion. Moreover, Jonkel’s outsider status ran afoul of Maryland’s Corrupt Practices Act that barred nonresidents from running a political campaign in the state. Following the Senate investigation, Jonkel pleaded guilty to six violations of state election law and paid a fine of $5,ooo.20 Jonkel never worked in politics again, an unwitting pawn in the larger battle over McCarthyism, but his controversial tactics would eventually become commonplace in the conduct of American campaigns.21

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