The Search for an Elusive Public

Close ties between social scientists and campaign professionals reflected a common desire: to understand the motivations and beliefs of an elusive public. The business of politics took shape during a profound growth in the scale and scope of political communication. Mass-circulation newspapers and magazines created new opportunities to craft messages on behalf of a candidate or a corporation. The advent of radio and then television made it possible to engage the electorate more directly, without the intervening influence of an editor. But with new technologies came new challenges as well.

In particular, it was not immediately clear how to integrate the tools of mass communication into the conduct of campaigns. What kind of messages were voters likely to receive? Who was likely to tune in to political programming, and how big was the audience? Which format was best suited to the character of a new medium like radio or television? In the early days of radio, for example, it was difficult to know how the public responded to, or even how many people received, political broadcasts. Whereas circulation data provided a rough measure of a newspaper’s reach, radio and television required a new set of techniques that could measure the size and preferences of a largely invisible public. As explored in chapter 4, the development of audience measurement tools was a key step in the origins of the commercial polling industry, as well as a keen interest of academic social scientists like Paul Lazarsfeld, Hadley Cantril, and others interested in the effects of mass communication. By applying the same techniques designed to measure the consumption habits and likes of the radio listener, Cantril along with former business executive Gerald Lambert used survey research to inform White House strategy. Franklin Roosevelt’s famed fireside chats represent an early example of crafted talk that combined the science of polling with the art of communication, a union that would transform political work in the decades to come.8

Even so, innovation in political work was a halting and uneven process. In the case of radio, political campaigns experimented with a variety of approaches that proved to be of limited use—in some cases they were outright failures. In the 1920s, paid radio programming consisted largely of gavel-to-gavel coverage of nominating conventions that included endless speeches, arcane procedural moves, and long ovations. This was far from scintillating entertainment, and it took at least a decade before political communication adapted to the expectations of a listening audience. With the advent of television, parties and campaigns continued to search for the best way to present a candidate to the public. Initial forays into televised campaigns included issue-focused ads as well as animated spots and jingles that mimicked commercial advertising methods.9 Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, candidates continued to rely on longer campaign films and paid political programming that lasted fifteen minutes, a half hour, or even longer. It was not until the 1970s that the thirty-second spot became the modal form of political advertising. Even then, the penetration of television in political campaigns was a gradual process. As late as 1978, a survey of general election candidates for the House of Representatives found that only 44 percent of campaigns employed television.10 The history of political work challenges the notion that technology transforms politics in a linear or straightforward fashion. Rather, communication technology like radio and television first had to be translated into a form that could be used effectively for political ends.

The Internet is the latest in a line of technological advances to influence the character of American politics. As discussed in chapter 8, online fundraising, advertising, and outreach efforts can now target supporters with greater precision and efficiency than was previously the case. As with past innovations, the development of digital campaign tools has implications for the control of political work. Although some foresee a time when the Internet and data analytics will supplant the traditional reliance on television, including the well-paid media consultants and time buyers who currently control the lion’s share of campaign resources, the new wave of digital tools is simply another service to sell. In this regard, the business of digital politics is not much different from the analog version that preceded it. In fact, by integrating digital campaigns into a broader menu of corporate communication services, these latest inventions appear to be the most recent phase in the ongoing commercialization of political work rather than some radical departure from the past.

From the spread of mass-circulation newspapers to the development of digital campaigns, practitioners have engaged in an ongoing search for a more immediate and more personal connection to the voter. Newspaper publicity appealed to the reasoning public, using effective copy to reach a national electorate. Radio brought the candidate into the living rooms of Americans and created a far more intimate connection with the voter than ever before. Television added the visceral image. The Internet, mobile technology, and data analytics provide greater immediacy and reach for political communication, and the trove of individual-level information, from consumer habits to voting behavior, can target messages more precisely than in the past. For more than a century, the effort to classify voters, target messages, and track their effects has been central to the development of a consulting industry and will continue to spark innovations that define the character of political work in the United States.

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