The Media, The Public, and the Development of Candidates' Images in the 1992 Presidential Election
CitationAlger, Dean. "The Media, The Public, and the Development of Candidates' Images in the 1992 Presidential Election." Shorenstein Center Research Paper Series 1994.R-14, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, October 1994.
AbstractThe presidential election of 1992 was called "surprising," "crazy," "unpredictable" by many journalists, analysts and some scholars. President Bush called it "a ·weird year." In the preface to The Election of 1992, Gerald Pomper says: "As much as George Bush, the conventional wisdom about American politics took a beating in 1992" (1993, p. vii). But perhaps the developments in that election are not so inexplicable. With a little systematic investigation of underlying forces and patterns, a fair amount of that apparent craziness might just be explainable.
The most intriguing main element of the '92 presidential election was the nature of the changes in the images of the three major candidates. Political scientists have noted for some time that there are three basic categories of matters people consider in determining their vote for major office. Political party identification, a long term determinant, is the traditional prime factor. That factor has weakened greatly, however, as is well documented.
Concerns about policy issues are a second category. Abundant evidence documents the low level of political knowledge of most Americans, as well as a rather substantial lack of coherence of ideological thinking (see, e.g., Niemi and Weisberg, 1993, and Neuman, 1986). This makes for an uneven and shaky foundation on which to build explanations of the vote tied specifically to
given candidates-particularly when combined with the fact that candidates tend to prefer diffuse rather than clear-cut communications and position-taking (Patterson, 1980). In a few elections though, there is an issue of overriding salience for the electorate, particularly when it touches people's lives in vital ways and is widespread. The 1992 presidential election did include such an issue-the economy-as is discussed below and as was much noted during the election. This is not by any means a sufficient explanation of the '92 voting results, though, as this paper discusses in some detail. Further, exactly how concern for the economy translates into specific voting choices, and how campaign efforts by the candidates affect that translation, must be explained.
The third category of determinants of the vote, the short-term factor of candidate evaluation, has become the increasingly prominent determinant in the media age. The rise of campaign consultants and the increased use of primaries with direct, mass citizen involvement in the nomination stage of presidential elections, have furthered the importance of candidate evaluation. This is particularly the case with television so central a factor in campaigns in the late twentieth century. A central and critical element of candidate evaluation is the image of the candidate's character and personality. This is detailed a little later.
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