The candidate image construct is used in the study of political communication to explain how campaign messages affect voter perceptions of candidates. It is assumed that changes in the images of candidates lead to changes in candidate evaluations and choices in elections. This assumption is consistent with the vast voting behavior literature which indicates that there are numerous long-term and short-term determinants of voting choices. Candidate image is one type of short-term voting determinant.
While there are competing definitions of candidate image, most uses of the construct assume that candidate images are cognitive representations of candidates. In their seminal work, Nimmo and Savage (1976) initiated a rigorous focus on candidate image as a construct that can help to explain how communication affects candidate evaluation. They argued that an image of a candidate consists of voter perceptions. These perceptions are the result of an interaction of voters’ subjective knowledge and messages sent by candidates. Some scholars assume that voters compare candidates on a similar set of criteria, such as attributes for an ideal office holder. Others, however, argue that voters appear to incorporate dissimilar standards in their images of competing candidates (Hellweg 2004).
The general theoretical perspective for contemporary candidate image research is an information-processing view of voters and citizens. Some scholars argue that voters follow a rational choice model and select candidates with ideal image comparisons or with their own self-interests. Other scholars believe that voters reduce the plethora of campaign messages and claims they encounter into simplified models of the candidates. In the latter view, voters form images of candidates in order to judge how the candidates are positioned in relation to the concerns that are most important to themselves (Kendall & Paine 1995; Lodge et al. 1995).
The Function Of Candidate Images In Campaigns
Campaigns provide voters with information about parties, candidates, and voting decisions. Campaign events like conventions and debates have significant effects on the public images of candidates (Holbrook 1996). Candidates attempt to shape candidate images in the minds of voters and reporters by projecting qualities that they believe will appeal to voters. Campaign public opinion analysts identify the desired traits and candidates then attempt to project those traits. A common image-building technique used by candidates without international political experience is to film them abroad talking with foreign leaders. This might show that they are endorsed by a group of experts who do have the international background.
One of the most important characteristics of candidate images is that they are changeable. If they were not, there would be little need for political consultants, participation in debates, and expenditure on advertising. Candidates can present their views on issues in various ways to increase the level of support for their position on these issues. They may not be able to change their job experience or religion, but they can alter perceptions of such aspects of their personal history.
Unless a voter votes by party line, he or she makes decisions about differences between candidates in an election. Candidate images provide voters with a means of evaluating candidates in relation to what they are most concerned about in an election. They also provide a means of tallying positive and negative reactions. This is useful in contrasting one candidate with another, as voters are most likely to vote for the candidate with the best positive to negative impressions ratio. Voters reason about their choice of political candidates as they do about other important choices in their lives. Most voters engage in economical means of integrating information they receive about candidates. According to Popkin (1991) voter reasoning draws on information shortcuts and rules of thumb (“low-information rationality”).
Components And Processes
Early views of candidate images treated them as summary representations of candidate source credibility. An alternative view regards candidate images as representations of the personality traits of candidates including source credibility, competence as a leader, communication style, etc. A third view treats images as representations of both candidate personal impressions and candidate issue-position impressions. A more expansive view allows any impressions about candidates (personality, issues, party, ideology, etc.) to be included in the images. This fourth view holds the promise of describing how affective responses can be part of images. To date, most approaches to images have conceptualize their content only as cognitions with inadequate accounting of affective responses to candidate and how those reponses might also constitute content in the images.
Kilburn (2005) argues that overall evaluations of candidates are formed by input from perceptions about candidates, issue attitudes held by voters, and partisanship. He also argues that trait perceptions and overall evaluations are mutually influential. For candidate images, this might suggest that the images of candidates have feedback influence on certain components such as impressions of candidate attributes. Voters tend to prefer candidates who have attributes they like, partisanship that matches their own, and views close to their own issue preferences.
Much of the content of candidate images concerns the personal traits of the candidates such as personality, mannerisms, communication behaviors, credibility, leadership potential, etc. Along with character input, however, candidate images appear also to be affected by reactions to candidates’ issues positions. Candidate issues positions can include policy statements, actions on issues, record in office regarding issues, and arguments made about political changes. Studies show that voter perceptions of the candidate issue positions (issue perceptions) and candidate personality traits (persona perceptions) are highly and significantly correlated (Hacker et al. 2000).
Image formation is subject to dynamic changes throughout a campaign. Components may change in candidate images as new messages are received, but the relative importance of component types like issue positions and personal impression may also shift (Flanigan & Zingale 2006). One example is the 1952 election, when Dwight Eisenhower ran as the victorious general of World War II, whereas in 1956, he ran as an incumbent president with a good record on issues. Another example is Bill Clinton downplaying personality perceptions in favor of strong issue stands to focus images on policies rather than personal issues.
Cognitive processing of candidates in election campaigns involves the ways in which incoming messages and information are evaluated and related to previously stored knowledge, attitudes, and images. A candidate image may be linked to a candidate schema with the latter being more long-term memory-based. This line of reasoning follows the “online tally” model of political cognition which holds that evaluations are continuously updated by voters (Lodge et al. 1995). Voters respond to campaign messages without necessarily being able to memorize or recall the content of those messages later. Conclusions may remain after the basis of concluding is forgotten. This may occur because facts presented through the news media can be forgotten while reactions to them are accumulated.
Communication Effects On Images
When voters speak to one another about candidates, they describe the images they have of the candidates. These candidate images include cognitive and affective elements. What others tell them about the candidates interacts with what they already believe and feel. The candidate image can be easily articulated because it is a summary structure of the candidate. However, it can be added to as more information from candidate schemas is activated to facilitate communication. Thus, candidate images can be seen as a mediating structure between schemas and the representations of candidates discussed in communication. The images may be reinforced, added to, or changed in personal communication as well as in mass and new media communication.
Candidate images are shaped in many forms of political communication. Political advertising, for example, directly targets image-shaping and image repair while sometimes attempting to generate negative images of competing candidates. News media provide information about candidates that makes it easy to observe their behaviors and make inferences about them. Film biographies are used as convention documentaries to provide extended video and audio narratives of a candidate and to highlight accomplishments and good traits. Debates provide candidates with opportunities to change certain impressions that voters have of them. Certain “defining moments” of debates can backfire and harm the candidates, however. A classic example of this from the USA was Gerald Ford’s claim, in his debate with Jimmy Carter in 1976, that the USSR did not dominate eastern Europe. Reactions by voters to what candidates say about issues and how they perform in the debates change their images of the candidates.
The nature of the content of candidate images is likely to be affected by the agenda setting that occurs in news media coverage of campaigns, by priming done in news stories, and various processes of framing done by candidates, journalists, and others who use old and new media to characterize candidacies and campaigns. Priming refers to the tendency of audience members to evaluate political candidates on the basis of the events and issues that are particularly salient in the news. Framing, also known as second-level agenda-setting, refers to the ability of the news media to affect the construction of candidate images by selecting and emphasizing candidate attributes for attention. In the same way as journalists focus on certain events or issues more than others, they also focus on certain candidate traits or attributes more than others. This suggests that news media play a key role in helping to shape candidate images.
News media agenda-setting effects have been found in numerous nations. For example, in the Spanish election of 1996, voters’ images of the three candidates for prime minister were positively correlated with candidate descriptions in the news media. A study of a mayoral election in Taipei, Taiwan in 1994 found that salient features of voters’ candidate images were correlated with candidate attributes emphasized by Taipei newspapers (McCombs 2004).
Conceptual And Methodological Issues
In voting research, cognitive constructs help to study how people evaluate candidates and make their voting choices. A focus on any cognitive structure in the cognitive system is part of an effort to ascertain how people represent the political world to themselves.
Candidate schemas are knowledge networks and dense long-term memory structures regarding candidates. Candidate images are evaluative and online cognitive representations of candidates. Candidate attitudes are summations of beliefs about candidates which include affect attached to those beliefs to the point attitudes are essentially affective structures constructed of beliefs. While these three structures may overlap, their respective literatures indicate substantive differences. Moreover, studies of voting behavior suggest that political cognition involves multiple structures that affect voting choices. On the other hand, it can be argued that the three constructs simply describe three different angles of view on the same evaluative process.
There are various ways of measuring candidate images that are somewhat related to the various conceptual definitions of images. This should not be alarming, because many, if not most, constructs in social and behavioral science research have different conceptual and operational definitions. As with attitude and schema, an image is not directly observable. Cognitive constructs are hypothetical constructs that serve as devices to understand human behavior and communication. Constructs like images are believed to exist because we can see how they mediate between input and output in relation to the mental processing of messages.
As long as communication is conceptually related to cognitive changes in voter perceptions and evaluations of a candidate, a candidate image provides a useful construct for linking messages to stabilized cognitive representations of the candidate.
- Flanigan, William, & Zingale, Nancy (2006). Political behavior of the American electorate, 11th edn. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press.
- Hacker, K. L. (ed.) (1995). Candidate images in presidential elections. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Hacker, K. L. (ed.) (2004). Presidential candidate images. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Hacker, K. L., Zakahi, W. R., Giles, M. J., & McQuitty, S. (2000). Components of candidate images: Statistical analysis of the issue–persona dichotomy in the presidential campaign of 1996. Communication Monographs, 67, 227–238.
- Hellweg, S. (2004). Campaigns and candidate images in American presidential elections. In K. Hacker (ed.), Presidential candidate images. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 21– 47.
- Holbrook, T. M. (1996). Do campaigns matter? Thousand Oaks: Sage.
- Kendall, K., & Paine, S. (1995). Political images and voting decisions. In K. Hacker (ed.), Presidential candidate images. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 19 –35.
- Kilburn, H. (2005). Does the candidate really matter? American Politics Research, 33, 335 –356.
- Lodge, M., Steenbergen, M., & Brau, S. (1995). The responsive voter: Campaign information and the dynamics of candidate evaluation. American Political Science Review, 89, 309–326.
- McCombs, M. (2004). Setting the agenda: The mass media and public opinion. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Nimmo, D., & Savage, R. (1976). Candiates and their images: Concepts, methods, and findings. Pacific Palisades, CA: Goodyear.
- Popkin, S. (1991). The reasoning voter: Communication and persuasion in presidential campaigns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.