Most political candidates spend an enormous amount of time and energy crafting campaign images. When it comes to judging politicians, what you see is at least as important as what you hear. The pictures that appear on screen, especially the people who surround a candidate, can have a powerful impact on voters.
In my work on campaign ad imagery, I found that viewers saw the people pictured in a candidate’s ad as a cue for what kind of people that candidate supported.
For example, candidates featuring African-Americans were more likely to be seen as supportive of affirmative action. Candidates who pictured blue-collar workers were more likely to be seen as supportive of raising the minimum wage. In fact, the impact of the image was just as strong as if the candidate had explicitly come out in favor of these causes. Moreover, viewers extrapolated a candidate’s ideology based on the groups pictured. If the candidate pictured groups generally viewed as liberal, like African-Americans, then he was perceived as more liberal. If she pictured groups generally viewed as conservative, like farmers, then she was perceived as more conservative.
While political ads can have a large cumulative impact, perhaps no single event garners more attention than a national political convention. These made-for-TV events are an excellent opportunity for a candidate to shape his or her image.
Lessons from conventions past
Tasha Philpot of the University of Texas has done excellent work on how the Republican Party has managed its image on racial issues. Her research details the national convention strategy used by the George W. Bush campaign and the GOP, which put African-Americans in prominent positions during the 2000 and 2004 conventions in order to emphasize the party’s racial diversity. Because of the importance of race in American politics and the link between African-Americans and liberalism, emphasizing racial diversity also helped the Bush campaign project an image of ideological moderation.
Philpot found that viewers who watched the conventions came away thinking that the GOP had moderated its positions on racial issues and moved left toward the ideological center, even though racial issues were rarely discussed at either convention. This effect was especially pronounced among white viewers, while African-Americans were less likely to be influenced. In short, the GOP pictured African-Americans at the convention in order to appeal to moderate white voters.
Campaign imagery is effective precisely because it doesn’t explicitly engage the viewer in the same way as political speech. Voters often use their own preconceptions, particularly those driven by partisanship, to tune out political messages. Rather than passively accept information, viewers form mental arguments against political messages they disagree with, and may even misremember political messages in favor of their own preexisting views of parties.
However, subtle image cues can bypass voters’ cognitive processes and biases. An African-American standing in the background of a campaign ad, or even an African-American gospel choir singing the national anthem at a convention, isn’t particularly noteworthy and does not draw much of the viewer’s attention. Viewers see an image and automatically associate it with a concept rather than actually taking the time and effort to think carefully about an image and what it means. The image can leave an impression on the viewer precisely because it isn’t noteworthy.
GOP efforts at projecting diversity continued in 2012, where the party attempted to put Latino faces on screen in prominent spots on the program. However, those efforts made little difference in an election year where voters made decisions very early and often did so based solely on partisanship. In addition, subtle image cues were undercut by the more memorable image of Clint Eastwood yelling at an empty chair.
Following Bush’s lead
So what will a Donald Trump convention look like? For the upcoming GOP convention, Trump could follow the path laid out by George W. Bush. It would seem obvious that Trump should use racial imagery at the GOP convention to try and repair his image. His calls for a ban on Muslims as well as his attacks on a Hispanic federal judge have made it difficult for Trump to solidify Republican voters, let alone reach out to independents. Even other Republican leaders have publicly criticized Trump for his overt racism.
Trump’s campaign rhetoric has taken a toll on his public standing. There has never been a more unpopular GOP nominee at this stage of the campaign, and his support among traditional Republican voters is slipping. For example, Republican candidates usually win college educated whites by comfortable margins, but Trump currently trails among these voters. Trump is facing a particularly large gender gap, with women overwhelmingly opposed to his candidacy. Just as Bush used African-Americans to project moderation, Trump could make racial imagery a key component of his convention and might win over voters without actually moderating any of his views. This is a particularly good strategy with female voters, who often prefer candidates with moderate positions on racial issues.
Awkward and overt
However, it is not clear that Trump is actually capable of engaging in that strategy. He seems loathe to back down from even his most obvious mistakes and his use of images of racial diversity has been clumsy, to say the least. At a recent campaign rally Trump pointed out an African-American audience member as proof of his appeal to black voters, even referring to him as “my African-American.”
This kind of explicit, awkward appeal is unlikely to be successful. In Philpot’s work, and in my own, racial imagery was effective precisely because the candidates did not draw attention to it. Trump’s inability to be subtle may make it impossible for him to win over moderate voters.
Finally, there is the possibility of violence at the convention. The host city of Cleveland is preparing for protests, counterprotests and mass violence. Violent clashes would be a disaster for the Trump campaign. Many voters already view Trump as unqualified for the presidency and dangerous. Pictures of violence, especially violence between angry whites and minorities, could cement that image in the public’s mind.
The candidate has two paths forward. Trump could continue as he has, ignoring the importance of campaign imagery and appealing to moderates, and remain a long shot for the White House. Or, the candidate could learn from his past mistakes and put on a typical convention. He could use racial imagery within the convention to subtly repair his image. Hillary Clinton is not a popular or well-liked candidate, and if Trump could merely come across as reasonable and somewhat moderate he could still pose a strong challenge in November. Either way, his choices at the convention could direct the course of the general election.