Candidates' skillful use of the media

When political pundits come to analyze the election of 1984, they are likely to conclude that President Reagan has conducted a campaign built less around substantive issues than around skillful use of mass communications to convey simple themes, create visual images of leadership, and generate a good mood in the country.

Perhaps more than any other president in modern history Ronald Reagan has employed the techniques of mass advertising and television news to keep his campaign flying high. A master performer himself, he has turned political campaigning into news-media theater - from the TV ads launched early in his campaign to the carefully orchestrated campaign trips, to the nationally televised broadcast Monday night.

''The overall choreography of news and advertising is as packaged as the Nixon campaign was in 1972,'' says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications expert at the University of Maryland.

But, Professor Jamieson says, unlike the Nixon campaign, Reagan's strategists did make some major mistakes. One was the early, highly polished TV ads replete with images of American well-being, including young brides and bridegrooms, with which many Americans did not identify.

These were accompanied by TV advertisements attacking Democratic candidate Walter Mondale which undercut the pro-Reagan ads. One anti-Mondale ad, for instance, showed a mother spreading peanut butter from one slice of bread to another - a budget-stretching act with which many real-life families sympathized.

Subsequent Reagan ads, says Professor Jamieson, introduced the theme of ''unfinished business,'' of needing to go on and do more in the future under the Republicans.This was especially true of a five-minute Reagan ad just before the first debate in which the President spoke of what ''all of us'' have accomplished in four years and what had to be done in the next four.

So effective was the Reagan image, Professor Jamieson suggests, that it served to blunt the poor performance by the President in the first debate. Many Americans were disappointed, she says, but prepared to believe that was an off night for Reagan.

On the hustings, the Reagan campaign demonstrated consummate skill at controlling the simple messages which went out over the airwaves - an ''America is standing tall'' patriotism and a ''you're better off today'' optimism.

The President's campaign planners at every stop turned out huge crowds for the TV cameras, made certain there were backdrops - such as Air Force One - that made for colorful and powerful TV images, and provided plenty of red-white-blue bunting and balloons.

They also saw to it that the President was kept insulated from the press during the campaign, holding no full-blown press conferences since July 24 and answering brief questions only on the run as he was about to board his plane or helicopter.

Throughout, the press has been frustrated by the lack of access, a frustration the White House finally responded to as Reagan at a campaign stop this week held a 20-minute news conference with the reporters traveling with him.

But political experts say they believe the public is far less concerned about the ''insulation'' of the President than are the news media and academics. This campaign season has had six major televised events - the two conventions, the three debates, and the scheduled election-eve Reagan TV broadcast.

''That's an improvement over any previous election,'' says Professor Jamieson. ''Nixon in 1972 was vulnerable because he did not debate.

''Reagan's people protect him, but the electorate would be upset only if it were not for the debates. Politically, he did not need to debate. And Mondale thanked him for doing so. So that's not a political issue.''

As for the lack of public discourse about issues, says the communication specialist, that is in large part the fault of the news media. Instead of dissecting and analyzing the substance of the three debates, for instance, they concentrated on the horse-race aspects of the election and the day-to-day polls.

''We learned a some things from the debates,'' says Professor Jamieson.

''But the news media never picked up on them, focusing instead on the 'bags under Mondale's eyes' and the style of the candidates.''

Has the ''packaging of the president'' distorted the election?

For all the close choreographing of the Reagan campaign and the emphasis on imagemaking, media analysts believe that the public in this TV age knows more about the candidates and has a better impression of their messages and personalities than they did in pre-TV elections. And, if Mondale loses today by the expected huge margin, it will not be because of his far less smoothly run campaign.

''Mondale's is not an example of a badly organized campaign,'' says political scientist Austin Ranney of the American Enterprise Institute.

''With a popular president and an economy going strong, it was an impossible situation from the beginning. If he takes a thumping defeat, it is not because of his campaign''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.