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Newspaper advertisement about NBC coverage of 1960 presidential election campaign
Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 13 Oct. 1960. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

New Technologies and Voter Information

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“American politics will never be the same again.”

This quotation from a 1960 advertisement for NBC’s coverage of the presidential election could just as well be from the current election season. Phrases like “never before” or “now more than ever” often introduce perceptions about how new technologies will disrupt traditional ways that voters receive information.

While the tools used today to reach, inform, and engage voters are unique, and important to evaluate in their own right, past advances in technologies offer lessons, too. Tools that seem outdated today were once a major innovation in how candidates could reach voters.

This analysis activity offers a framework to compare how voters in the past experienced a new technology with how voters today interact with contemporary tools that campaigns use today.

First, show students this advertisement that appeared in the Evening Star, a Washington D.C. newspaper. Ask students to examine the advertisement. As they read the ad, remind them to keep in mind:

  • When was this advertisement published?
  • What is the purpose of the advertisement?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What clues can they find to better understand what is happening at the time?
  • What does this advertisement claim about the importance of television to informing voters? What words or phrases support your answer?

Next, ask students to examine and read one or both of the articles below. Each article gives attention to how voters reacted to the televised debates, including the extent to which the technology (television), combined with a message (debates) informed their preference on a candidate.

Encourage students to identify patterns they notice about how voters get information and what influences a voter’s opinion of a candidate.

Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 27 Sept. 1960. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 08 Oct. 1960. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
After students spend time with one or both articles, help them analyze where there are gaps between how the advertisement presents television and its perceived impact on voters with the experiences of the voters themselves.

These prompts might encourage reflection and discussion:

  • According to the polls published after two of the debates, how much did the televised debates matter?
  • Did opinions shift? Were opinions reinforced?
  • How did the technology impact the voter’s understanding of each candidate’s message?

Finally, apply this exercise to today.  Ask students to think about the tools campaigns currently use to reach and inform voters. Are common perceptions different from how students experience them? Why might that be?

There is a balance to find between appreciating the unique challenges and opportunities a particular technology offers, while also recognizing that new technologies can be seen as existential or without precedent. Holding both of these understandings together can help students thoughtfully reach their own conclusions about how technologies influence voter information and voter behavior. It is likely that new technologies will persist. Invite students to brainstorm what they can use from this exercise to think about, prepare for, and engage with new tools that may be on the horizon.

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