Watching the elections

Elections as media events

Joe McGinniss' book The Selling of the President had a shocking title for 1968, suggesting as it did that in the television age the presidency had become nothing more than another product to be packaged and sold. A new MNet resource, Watching the Elections (a lesson for Grade 8 to 12 Social Studies classes), shines a light on how the different aspects of an election – from the debates to political ads to the candidates themselves – are actually media products.

Political advertising

Despite the shocked reaction to McGinniss' book, as far back as the Nineteenth Century it was the power of the press that brought events such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates to voters. Now, thanks to the Web site The Living Room President, we can see that candidates have been sold like soap since the dawn of television. (You can view a playlist of our favourites here, or browse the site from the main page.) While some of the commercials from 1952 have the direct and dignified air we expect to see in the past, others use advertising techniques that today's politicians would find too crass, such as jingles and cartoons (including this one with what sounds like the voice of Alan Reed, the original Fred Flintstone).

It's true that political ads have become more sophisticated over the years. Perhaps the biggest change came with Ronald Reagan, a candidate who, having been an actor, was already a media product before entering politics: his ad campaigns created a seamless narrative that blended patriotism, fear and reassurance by painting a picture of “Morning in America.”

Most recently, campaign commercials have focused as heavily on the candidate's personality as on any matters of policy. The 2004 George W. Bush ad “Windsurfing” purported to be a criticism of John Kerry's purported flip-flopping, but in fact served more to highlight a moment in which Kerry looked silly – like the famous shot of Stockwell Day in the wet suit – and also cemented viewer perceptions of him as an East Coast liberal.


Political debates are, of course, a natural media event, and they are particularly suited to TV – a medium which thrives on close-ups and one-on-one combat. To this day one of the most famous presidential debates was that held between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. This debate proved the power of TV: those who listened to it on the radio generally thought Nixon had won, but those who saw it on TV – swayed, perhaps, by Kennedy's youthful charm and Nixon's flop-sweat – gave the win to Kennedy. Over the years TV networks have come up with a variety of techniques to make debates seem more dramatic: this 1992 Clinton-Bush-Perot debate, for instance, starts with clips of each candidate declaring “Let's get it on!” (Note: this video may not have been uploaded by the copyright holder.)

Some have argued that the emphasis on conflict in the debate format, which is intensified by how the debates are presented on TV, lowers the tone of political argument and forces candidates to limit their positions to simple either/or statements. Those who feel this way will get no comfort from the fact that the upcoming U.S. debates will be Twittered live – perhaps forcing candidates to make sure that anything they say can be easily captured in a 140-character “tweet.”

What really makes debates such a great media product, of course, is that they're all about personality. More than anything else, debates are a way for candidates to brand themselves (and their opponents). Consider Reagan's glib dismissal of Jimmy Carter with “There you go again”; Brian Mulroney's ability to paint himself as the principled outsider by telling John Turner “You had an option, sir. You could have said no”; Vice-presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen's withering response to Dan Quayle's suggestion that he was no less experienced than John F. Kennedy had been when elected – “I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.”

The coming debates, both Canadian and American, should provide a good opportunity for classes to analyze the elections as media products. The Canadian debate will, for the first time – and after a certain amount of controversy – include Green Party leader Elizabeth May, bringing the number of debaters up to a rather unwieldy five. As for the American election, while the two Presidential debates will likely offer a memorable contest between a gifted orator and a self-described maverick not known for watching his words, odds are that a larger audience will be drawn to the matchup between the Vice-presidential nominees, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

The U.S. Presidential debates will be aired on September 26, October 7 and October 15. The Vice-presidential debate will air on October 2 – the same day as the sole English Canadian debate. Can't decide? Not to worry – one or both will no doubt be posted on YouTube the next day.

Questions for classroom discussion

The activity below is taken from the MNet resource Watching the Elections. Click here to view the entire lesson.

Ask students what they know about the candidates who will be participating in the debates. (You may wish to do some research in advance to be able to fill in gaps.) Share information on the board so that students are able to build a fairly complete profile of each candidate. Ask students what they think the key issues of the election are and list them on the board.

Distribute the following questions and go through them with students. Have students watch either the current Canadian or American debates live and answer the questions, then take them up with the class the next day.

Questions to consider while watching the debate:

Opening sequence

What does the broadcaster do to make the debate seem more exciting in the opening sequence?


How does the set make the debate seem more exciting or dramatic?

How does the set enhance the sense of conflict between the candidates?


How does the format of the debate help to keep answers short and dramatic?

How does the format of the debate increase the conflict between the candidates?

Topics and questions

Who chose the topics and/or questions? Who asks them? How do they serve to make the debate more dramatic or increase the conflict between the candidates?

Post-debate analysis

Which candidate(s) do the commentators feel won the debate? Why? Do you agree? Why or why not?