Media & Debates

Current Practices

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The contemporary nominating process follows a distinct pattern.  A front-runner emerges in the “invisible primary” period that takes place before primary balloting and then turns this early success into primary victories.  Media coverage helps determine if a candidate met, exceeded, or fell short of expectations in each contest.  Instead of using the convention to select a nominee, the party uses it as a rallying point.  Initially, television media outlets gave the convention’s new role a lot of attention. Today, however, the major media networks might carry the nominee’s acceptance speech, but not the other, less important events.

Declining network television coverage has been accompanied by an increase in nontraditional media coverage.  Today, every major news organization has a blogger on staff. This allows organizations to report on events that would not be covered traditionally. While alternative media sources are becoming more and more relevant, most citizens still rely on television for their campaign news.

The 2008 campaign marked the first presidential election cycle since 1952 where neither party’s prospective nominees were sitting presidents or vice presidents.  This is also the case in 2016, although Hillary Clinton is married to a former president.  The two Democratic front-runners throughout the primary process and into the convention season were also members of minority groups (Barack Obama as an African American, and Hillary Clinton as a female), which increased media coverage.  This amount of coverage was also due to the relatively stable political environment in America in 2007, which freed up airtime and the public’s interest to be occupied by campaign information.

Television, in modern times, has become the primary medium for political communications. The media has replaced political parties’ role in educating voters, but it functions differently. Whereas the parties are motivated by political power which gives credibility to traditions, the media outlets can be sensationalist (using exciting or shocking stories without the regard for accuracy) and are forever shifting their agendas based on events of the day. Debates are an excellent example of how modern television plays this educational function. Another potential impact of the debates is their capacity for “agenda setting” by the media. The importance of a certain policy or campaign issue in the public mind can emerge as a result, and this may exhibit the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate’s campaign.

Modern debates attract million of viewers, because they are among the few unscripted moments of the entire campaign. In 2004, the first debate between President Bush and Senator Kerry at the University of Miami pulled in 62.5 million viewers. Debates give voters the chance to see the candidates react “under fire”, and gives insight into their intelligence and character. While the debates are not academic (with arguments for or against a policy or proposition), they do reveal how well a candidate can think on their feet and handle pressure.

These debates do not take place without contention; minority parties call them shams unless, of course, they are included. Candidates’ campaign staff spin debates to secure political advantage, even before the debate ends. Watchdog organizations are always on the lookout for a candidate’s legitimacy. In the modern media cycle, “fact checkers” immediately challenge or defend each candidate’s statements.  The “spin room” exists on the internet, before the end of the debate.

Minority parties sometimes participate in debates in the modern era; in 1992, independent candidate H. Ross Perot was invited to join in the presidential debates. 1992 also marked the introduction of the “town hall” format of debate in which “ordinary citizens” asked the questions. Bill Clinton excelled at this format, and worked on his body language and stage positions in advance of the debate. While Clinton went on to win, Perot was bumped from 7% in pre-debate polls to 19% on Election Day, a huge gain for a candidate. Some experts believe Perot’s bump came as a result of his debate participation.

The increased power of the media and decreased power of party elites means voters must sift through a tremendous amount of information in order to make informed decisions.

How the Media Covered the 2012 Campaign