The aim of this paper is to look at the relationship between the mass media, specifically television, and presidential elections. This paper will focus on the function of television in presidential elections through three main areas: exit polls, presidential debates, and spots. The focus is on television for three reasons. First, television reaches more voters than any other medium. Second, television attracts the greatest part of presidential campaign budgets. Third, television provides the candidates a good opportunity to contact the people directly. A second main theme of this paper is the role of television in presidential elections in terms of representative democracy in the United States.
Researchers tend to hold one of three views about television's influence on voters. Some believe that television affects voters in the short run, for example in an election campaign. Another group of researchers believes that television has a great influence on voters over time and that television's impact on voters is a continuous process from one campaign to the next. Others stand between the two views or combine both.
In the last three decades, polls became an important instrument for the media, especially television networks, to determine who wins and who loses the election. Caprini conducted a study about the impact of the early prediction of a winner in the 1980 presidential race by the television networks. He observed that, shortly after 8 p.m. Eastern standard time, NBC announced that, according to its analysis of exit poll data, Ronald Reagan was to be the next president of the United States (Caprini, 1984, p. 866). That early call was controversial because the polls in many states were still open at the time and, in some of the western states, would remain open for several hours. Caprini ended his study with the following conclusion:
Voting for the Republican candidate was completely unaffected by the early call, with precall and postcall districts varying from their normal patterns in exactly the same amount and direction. The Democratic vote, however, declined 3.1 percent more in the postcall districts than in the precall districts (p. 874).
This result suggests that the NBC prediction did have an impact on the election. Additionally, this result supports the impact of the media on political behavior.
Some experts argue that rates of voting in the western states are not affected by early projections. Strom and Epstein argue that the decline in western states' turnouts is not a result of the early projections by the networks but is the result of a complicated combination of factors, none of which is related to information received on election day (Epstein and Strom, 1981, pp. 479-489). This argument denies the influence of polls on the voting turnout in the first place, and it denies the impact of media on political behavior.
Other researchers look at the issue of exit polls from a legal perspective. Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment...