Information and Persuasion

As described in chapter 2, presidential campaigns at the turn of the twentieth century combined a progressive belief in rational deliberation with an orchestrated attempt at mass persuasion. This seemingly contradictory impulse marks an important turn in the history of political work. Operating under the general heading of publicity, experts skilled in the techniques of journalism and advertising celebrated the power of the reasoning voter even as they crafted campaign messages designed to create an emotional connection with the public. The resulting tension between reason and emotion, between information and persuasion, and between a world of objective facts and a subjective rendering of the world so that it appeared fact-like shaped the evolution of political work in the United States and altered the character of American politics in ways that are still evident today.

The growth of mass-circulation newspapers and magazines offered unprecedented access to a national electorate. For progressive politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the national press made it possible to appeal directly to the voter on the basis of issue positions rather than partisan loyalties. Publicity captured a progressive faith in the power of reason, and it fit well with the criticism of boss rule offered by Roosevelt, Wilson, and others who believed that the character of the individual candidate could stand above the corrupting influence of the party machine.

This emphasis on the individual attributes of the candidate continues to be a staple of American political style long after the party bosses have gone. Contemporary forms of political advertising follow a predictable formula: publicize an opponent’s shortcomings in order to elevate one’s own position in the public eye. Publicity not only reveals who is honest and who is corrupt but also separates the qualified from the inept. The focus on personal political virtue contributes to the highly personalistic nature of American campaigns and the individualistic self-reliance with which candidates approach their political careers.

As a technique, however, publicity is an instrument of persuasion that frequently draws a mixture of skepticism, derision, and alarm, especially from potential rivals in the provision of political advice. As discussed in chapter 3, revelations of wartime propaganda during the 1920s fueled an occupational struggle over the space between the public and those who endeavored to represent them. Journalists, in particular, defended their role as arbiters of public opinion by portraying those engaged in publicity and public relations as hucksters, con artists, or even master manipulators degrading the democratic process. In response, practitioners adopted the trappings of a profession in an effort to secure occupational control over political work.

Almost a century later, the public image of the political consultant remains mixed at best. Critics sometimes blame the industry for a cynical political style that pollutes the airwaves with negative advertising and turns our leaders into slavish followers of a fickle public.3 As in the past, entities like the American Association of Political Consultants, graduate programs in political management, and trade publications like Campaigns & Elections help the industry foster a professional identity and raise its status in the eyes of a skeptical public.

Throughout this struggle for occupational control, campaign professionals have found common cause with social scientists in search of better ways to measure and manage public opinion. Edward Bernays, for example, corresponded with prominent political scientists who thought the practice of public relations could contribute to a social scientific understanding of mass psychology. For these scholars, propaganda was an essential tool of modern politics; campaigns of persuasion were a feature of a well-functioning democracy. As Harold Lasswell famously put it, propaganda itself was “no more moral or immoral than a pump handle.”4 A version of Lasswell’s argument survives in contemporary political science research that finds negative advertising does not repel voters but instead informs and energizes the electorate.5

As the consulting profession developed over the next several decades, academia provided both a source of talent and a testing ground for new techniques. As described in chapter 4, commercial pollsters like George Gallup worked closely with academics like Hadley Cantril to perfect their methods, further their professional aims, and raise the status of survey research in the academy. In the 1940s, academic social scientists came to the rescue of commercial pollsters, explaining that the debacle of the 1948 campaign illustrated the need for more polling, not less. Even today, a number of prominent pollsters began their careers in the academy or hold advanced degrees.6

More important than the status consultants derive from an affiliation with an academic discipline is the way social scientific techniques helped make the attachments and affiliations of voters legible to consultants crafting the strategy of a campaign. During the 1941 New York mayoral race, for example, Edward Bernays used census data to classify voters and tailor campaign messages that resonated with what he believed to be the interests, aspirations, and fears of discrete racial and ethnic groups. Thirty years later, Matt Reese devised a much more sophisticated targeting method that combined precinct-level demographic, consumer, and electoral data to generate profiles of like-minded voters he believed would be receptive to specific messages and appeals. Today, advances in computer-assisted mapping (geographic information systems) and abundant sources of fine-grained personal data allow for even greater precision in targeting. At the same time, campaigns are using the results of experimental research in political science to gauge the relative efficacy of phone calls, direct mail, and door-to-door contact as inducements to vote.7

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