Is The Television Age Another Incumbent On The Spot?

Since 1960 the more telegenic candidate has won every election, a string that could be broken in 2012.

Both political conventions are in the books and after the events of Tampa last week and Charlotte this week, we’ll start to know how the American public is going to respond to the campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. As we stand right now, this has a chance to be a historic election,  and not for reasons usually discussed in the mainstream media.

Since the election of 1960, when John F. Kennedy edged out Richard Nixon thanks to the public reaction to the first-ever series of televised presidential debates, the American presidency has consistently, and without fail, gone to the major party candidate most adept at talking on the tube. In the cases of presidents we’ve had who’ve been lacking in TV skills (Carter, Bush Senior & Junior), all beat opponents who were even more charismatically-challenged. Jimmy Carter won in 1976 over Gerald Ford. Bush The First beat Michael Dukakis, perhaps the iciest figure to be nominated by either party post-1960. Bush the Younger beat the obnoxious and stiff Al Gore, then followed it up with a win over John Kerry, who’s patrician prosecutorial style made it clear why he can only be elected in a one-party state (Massachusetts).

This history works strongly to the advantage of President Obama and we’ll find out in the coming debates if this history holds, but there are reasons to think it may not. The first is the changing dynamics of American television and media. The explosion of online media outlets are going to eventually minimize the impact of television. Whether that happens in 2012 remains to be seen, but more and more Americans get information from somewhere other than the tube (I don’t remember the last time I watched a talk show, but I read online news daily) .

The other reason it may not hold in 2012 is there are a lot of factors working against the Obama campaign. Only one president has been re-elected with a sub-50 percent approval rating and a struggling economy and that was Bush Junior on 2004. That took a monumentally incompetent campaign by Kerry, lingering fears over terrorism, the little bit of TV edge noted above and the incumbent still only escaped by 2.5 percentage points. Whatever one thinks of Mitt Romney, his campaign has not been incompetent and the prospect of foreign affairs taking attention off the economy seems slight.

What it all adds up to this is—a Romney win in November, regardless of margin, would send a clear signal that the age of having to be more telegenic than your opponent to win is over. Whether the media would notice is another question entirely, but it would certainly make a seminal moment in the history of American presidential campaigns.

Dan Flaherty is the author of Fulcrum, an Irish Catholic novel set in postwar Boston with a traditional Democratic mayoral campaign at its heart, and he is the editor-in-chief of TheSportsNotebook.com

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