Political campaigning has changed remarkably throughout modern history. One crucial area that has fundamentally altered the way campaigns operate has been the evolution of media platforms.
New Zealand has just had an election, Queensland is about to head to the polls and, of course, the US is less than two weeks away from their presidential election. The SAS Group therefore thought we’d look briefly at the changing impact media has had on political campaigning and how candidates communicate with voters.
For centuries newspapers have played a dominant role in communicating political messaging to the voting public. Until recently, being able to win support from the print media was critical to building momentum and winning over voters.
However, the rise of other forms of media has resulted in voters receiving information from a greater number of avenues. This has led to the print media now having a diminished influence on political campaigns. This is further evidenced by the fact that newspapers are now trying to reinvent themselves in order to impose themselves on an election campaign. For example, the Queensland state election is the first time in which the Courier Mail and associated papers have staged local debates for each electorate and livestreamed them online. Expect to see similar innovations from print media in the future in order to keep up with new media platforms.
In the 1920s and 30s radio became incredibly popular - both for campaign purposes and life more generally. The big advantage that this medium offered was that it enabled political candidates to speak directly to voters. Previously, politicians would have to give speeches in public and hope that people turned up to listen. Radio allowed politicians access to people’s living rooms and dramatically boosted the reach of their message.
The rise of television added yet another crucial element to the media coverage of politics - imagery. This was best illustrated during the 1960 Presidential debate between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It was the first ever televised Presidential debate and left a lasting legacy on how candidates physically present themselves.
Richard Nixon arrived at the debate not clean-shaven, wore a drab suit and sweated profusely throughout the debate. JFK by contrast walked onto the set with a golden fake-tan, immaculately dressed and looking like someone who had just walked off a Hollywood set. The distinction in appearance between the two would prove pivotal.
Radio listeners - who obviously couldn’t see either candidate - gave the debate to Nixon. However, TV viewers judged Kennedy as the winner, clearly swayed by how he presented himself compared to his opponent. In the end, Kennedy won one of the narrowest election victories in presidential history, leaving many to conclude that TV debate as making the difference.
Anyone reading this not aware that Donald Trump likes to Tweet? Yes, the current President is far from a conventional politician, but his persistent use of Twitter does demonstrate the ability of social media to bypass traditional media outlets and communicate with voters unfiltered. It is also instantaneous, meaning that as a platform it is not subject to media deadlines or the news cycle. If you have content you want to put out, the timing of the dissemination is in your hands.
Social media also offers candidates the ability to run digital campaigns that specifically target voters. If you’re a Queensland reader and living in a marginal seat there’s a high chance you would have noticed digital ads or sponsored posts from candidates appearing on whatever platform you are using. This is no coincidence, as modern digital campaign tools provide political parties with the ability to target voters like never before.
An entire volume of books could be written on how the evolution of media has changed political campaigning. The key take home is that whatever the media landscape looks like 100 years from now, the media (in some shape or form) will still be instrumental in the way in which political messaging is communicated.