SUNDAY, OCT 27, 2013 09:30 AM EDT
By leveraging race and religion — especially in the South — he set an example for today's bitter politics
Late in the 1960s the practice of political campaigning in the United States began to be transformed. New techniques meant that it was increasingly possible to disseminate messages to extraordinary numbers of potential voters, tailored to the interests and views of particular constituencies. At the same time attitudes were in flux, a consequence of the past decade’s social upheavals, and the old party machines were declining in influence. All these factors combined to accentuate the established tendency in political strategy to accentuate the negative.
When journalist James Perry wrote about The New Politics in 1968 his focus was on technique and not about how protests, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and community organizations might be shaking up the old elite. He explained how polling and marketing were becoming more sophisticated, and even drew attention to the potential uses of computers. Perry described how the moderate George Romney was taking advantage of these techniques in the race for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. By the time the book was published, however, Romney’s campaign had collapsed, having failed to connect with voters. The new techniques could only take you so far.
The importance of a media image had been underlined in different ways in the previous two elections. John Kennedy had famously gained an advantage over Richard Nixon in the televised presidential debate in 1960, and then the possibilities of negative advertising had been underlined by one used by the Democrats against Barry Goldwater in 1964. This showed a small girl counting daisies as a missile countdown began leading toward a nuclear explosion, with President Johnson in the background urging peace. This became identified as a turning point in technique. It played on an established image of Goldwater’s recklessness. The appeal of the ad was emotional. It contained no facts and Goldwater’s name was not mentioned.
The limitations of technique when combined with an uncertain message were illustrated by Nixon’s 1968 Presidential campaign. Joe McGinnis’s “Selling of the President” captured the idea that someone so unprepossessing could be turned into a marketable political product. The aim was to attach a positive, moderate image to Nixon. But this cautious approach was not wholly successful. The margin of victory was surprisingly narrow.
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