1964: Conservative vs. Liberal
The 1964 election was one of the most interesting presidential elections in the history of U.S.A. For the first time since the election of 1932, American voters were given a chance to choose a President from two candidates who were completely opposite in their ideology and personality. The two candidates did not merely differ in their ideas; one was the opposite of the other. The candidates differing ideology gave the media a perfect opportunity to highlight their differences and their personality.
Unlike the election of the 1932, the coverage in the 1964 election was not devoted mostly to the coverage of issues. It covered a great deal of the candidates personality and analyzing the candidate's stand on the issues and how their issues played with the electorate. The media was still respectful of the candidates to some extent and refrained from criticizing the candidates up front as they do now. However, the coverage of the candidates was clearly different and the media tended to give candidates a hint as to what they should and should not do in order to win and seemed to give most of the good coverage to the incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson rather than to the challenger, senator Barry Goldwater.
Incumbent candidates usually get good coverage if they are running for reelection in a time when the economy is good, and this time was no exception. Part of the good coverage President Johnson received can be explained by the good economy and the lingering sympathy the press and the people still felt for the passing of President Kennedy. It should also be noted that President Johnson was a master at manipulating the press, having learned from his predecessor, President Kennedy, who had a special touch with the press himself. President Johnson cajoled, manipulated, and threatened reporters into giving him favorable coverage. It also helped that he faced a very weak candidate that came from a divided party.
From the start, Senator Goldwater had a difficult task in trying to oust a popular President in a good economy: What made his task almost impossible was that his extreme right wing ideology alienated the more moderate wing of the party. As we can learn from history, a divided party almost always loses an election because a portion of their supporters would choose to stay home rather than vote for the candidate they do not like. Senator Goldwater's refusal to moderate his view alienated the moderate Republicans so much that the leader, Governor Rockefeller, rebuked the Senator at the convention, which was televised to the public. The media followed this and the main story became not about Senator Goldwater's stance on the issue, but whether or not Governor Rockefeller was going to endorse him and campaign with him, which drowned his message and lead him to receive more unfavorable coverage.
On the other hand, President Lyndon Johnson, who was unopposed and had very high popularity, used the division of the Republican Party to cast his opponent as an extremist and impulsive, with the aid of the media. It also did not hurt that his opponent was not particularly liked by the media and did not grant the media as much access as they had with the Presidents campaign. The story was full of how the people liked Johnson and how he was drawing a very large crowd wherever he went. Most of the headlines in October about the Presidential campaign was, President Cheered by 15,000 as he campaigns ,accompanied by a smiling President with a large crowd. (NY times). Most of the story also contained the Presidents assertion that he was a better leader than his opponent. The reporters framed this in a manner that the President was telling the voters that Senator Goldwater was an extremist and impulsive. Instead of letting the reader make the connection, the reporters were interpreting the news for the reader and viewer. Reporters not only interpreted the news to the determent of the Senator, there were also other subtler ways they constituted bias against the Senator.
One of the ways was the press used the Senator's photo: No matter how large the crowd, the picture in the newspaper was either the Senator by himself not smiling, or with the small crowd. The impression the pictures left was that the Senator had small following and/or was not happy with his campaign. However, the story that accompanied the picture told that the Senator was on a huge rally with numbers either exceeding the Presidents or matching it. It is unclear whether the press had an access to the picture and refused to print it, or the campaign did not provide it. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the press would not be able to get the pictures. It is more likely that the press simply did not show the picture because they knew the Senator was going to lose and did not want to give the impression that he had a large following. If the latter is true, then the media had committed an egregious mistake by giving the readers the wrong impression because readers usually look at the pictures first before reading the article. Not that the articles were any better, most of the article were on the rift between the Senator and Governor Rockefeller, and their strategy with headline like Goldwater Hunts A Winning Tactic. Aides cant agree on a new strategy. (NY Times). These kinds of headlines emphasized the impression that the Senator's campaign was in trouble.
President Johnson was very worried about how he was going to be covered by the media and went to a great length to cozy up to the reporters by constantly holding news conference and inviting the reporters to the White House and his ranch in Texas. When he did get the kind of coverage he wanted from the media, he used the television studio he had set up at the White House basement to broadcast his message to the people directly. He also manipulated the television cameramen into filming him the way he wanted them by telling them that his best side was the side he did not want to get filmed at; knowing in advance that they would film the opposite of what he said (Al Gore, NY Times). The President also used the Television advertising to drive home the impression that the Senator was reckless. One of his famous (or Infamous) commercial known as the Daisy commercial was so controversial that it aired only a few times. The commercial depicted a little girl counting daisy buds and a nuclear detonation to imply that the choice for the voters was between him, who was cautious, and the Senator, who was impulsive and willing to start a nuclear war on impulse. The ad was effective because the Senator (partly through his own fault) was portrayed as an impulsive and willing to start a war over little things. This impression was cemented by the Senator's election speech in which he stated, Extremism in fight of liberty is no vise. Also the Senator's insistence on talking about War, weapons and nuclear bombs, in his rallies did not help either. In one of his rallies in Indiana he used weapon, war, and destruction 26 times in his speech, which lasted for a total of 24 minutes.
The speeches that the Senator was giving and the media covered extensively, gave the President a perfect opportunity to make a speech such as by one impulse act you could press a button and wipe out 300 million people before sun down. The media interpreted that kind of speech as meaning that if the Senator was elected, he would use nuclear weapons, which forced the Senator to waste his time defending the charge that was made against him indirectly by the President and magnified by the media to the determent of the Senator Campaign.
The other thing that hurt the senator campaign was that the press spent most of October stating that the president was way ahead and the Senator had very little chance of getting elected. There were numerous stories in Washington Post and New York Times that talked about by how much the President was leading the Senator and how only the Senator and his campaign staffs were the ones who believed he had a chance. This kind of reporting had a devastating effect on the election because it demoralized the losing teams supporters and voters who were not strong supporters of either candidates not to vote because they believed the outcome was already pre-ordained. However, the greatest effect is on the outcome of other elections since there were other elections that were close and needed all the voters they could get to vote for them and the outcome depended on voter turn out. The Senator lost in what was then the biggest landslide, and the President had large coattails, further reducing the Republican minority in the Senate and the House.