The Power of Sound: The 2016 Presidential Campaign

By: Justin Patch (Vassar College) //

The modern political campaign is an emotional and sensory affair. It is not rational or reasonable, nor is it concerned with presenting best policies and practices for governance, fostering the greatest good for all, or sensibly managing the world’s largest economy. Instead, campaigns appeal to pathos, optimism, nationalism, and fear. They use stereotype and caricature, level unverifiable accusations, present policies and platitudes devoid of possibility, and deal in clichés and sound bites. Campaign ads stimulate emotions and provoke strong (partisan and intra-party) reactions rather than laying the groundwork for deliberative debates on policy, process, purpose, or vision. The modern campaign, as the founders of democracy in the New and Old Worlds feared, is an appeal to humanity’s basest instincts: fear, hatred, paranoiacompetition, and hope. The power and profundity of sound make it an essential but dangerous element of political campaigns. 

The sonic imprint of a campaign, its followers and foes, and the ways in which media frame candidates, provides a wealth of affective power. When well placed, sound adds emotional force by enhancing the message of the text and the image of the candidate. Sound can cast a candidate in a positive light and cultivate ineffable good feelings toward them, rendering them impervious to criticism.

Sound can also do the opposite. When poorly conceived or designed, sound can be damaging to a campaign, smacking of tin-eared pandering or a lack of professionalism. Because sound is a necessary tool in cultivating emotional responses to a candidate’s rhetoric and vision for the future, it also provides insight into how their campaign imagines the electorate. Campaign sounds tell us how candidates perceive their base, who they anticipate is listening, and what emotional reactions auditors are meant to have.

Some campaign sound reinforces knowledge gathered through polling, reporting, and textual analysis, such as which issues resonate with voters and how stump speeches are constructed to produce sound bites framed by applause. Observing how audiences and the media pick up on bits of campaign rhetoric demonstrates the powers of persuasion that candidates must possess to attract voters, activists, and donors. Basic musical analysis often shows that campaigns represent their opponents in ads by using typical “bad guy” sounds employed in film score (for example, white noise, minor modes, ominous low brass and low synth sounds, and descending melodies). In contrast, they frame their own image using major melodies, dramatic percussion, or, more often, the sound of enthusiastic applause. Listening deeper and thinking about the larger ecosystem of campaign sound beyond text and accompaniment provides us with information that goes beyond what a textual approach to campaign sound tells us.

We should consider the sound design and recording of the voice, the use of diegetic or ‘real’ sonic accompaniment, and we should listen to noise. The volume of noise a campaign can create, for example, is a barometer of participation, a measure of the interplay between speaking and listening. Campaign sound communicates common cultural references, expectations of audience reaction, and experiments in campaign strategy. Campaign sound includes music—theme songs, advertising scores, appearances with celebrity musicians, and live events at campaign stops—along with incidental noise, applause and chants, speech clips posted to the web, and Internet sound art like “Bad Lip Reading,” “Singing Tweets,” and fan jingles. The total corpus of campaign sound represents joy, enthusiasm, criticism, satire, repulsion, and everything in between.

Take, for example, two advertisements from former Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Chris Christie. Both claimed to speak as experienced legislators, populists, and advocates for working Americans, but were viewed by popular media as strikingly different candidates. Christie was labeled an “establishment” candidate, while Santorum campaigned as an outsider and a champion of an Evangelical, conservative America. Neither could claim an established base and competed early on for media attention. The following videos demonstrate the different visions and approaches to sounding like a candidate and appealing to voters.

 Chris Christie’s ad “Protect America”

Rick Santorum’s announcement ahead of a policy speech delivered on August 21, 2015

These two examples are at opposite poles of the sound and visual spectrum. Chris Christie’s ad is sophisticated, with multiple camera angles, voice filters for a larger-than-life address, and visual graphics that depict images of heroism and enmity. By contrast, Rick Santorum’s ad is addressed straight to the camera—and ostensibly the viewer—a direct appeal to voters to tune in for an upcoming event. The sound is thin, spare, and intimate. In examining these, one can see the power of sound in design, editing, scoring, and sound effects.

 The first example begins with Christie’s voice featured prominently over soft orchestral score featuring low strings and percussion. As scenes from Iranian anti-US protests and demagogic portraits of the Ayatolla are featured, crowd noises are mixed in between Christie’s voice and the slowly building score. Two prominently sustained still shots are accompanied by distinct, short melodies. A descending melody accompanies an ominous two-color rendering of President Obama, and a dramatic still shot of a stone-faced Ronald Reagan staring across a sheepish Mikhail Gorbachev is paired with climactic orchestral hits that highlight a simple ascending melody. The juxtaposition of ascending melodies for heroism and descending themes for evil is commonly used in film scores—think of the motives that accompany Princess Leia and the Main Theme versus the “Imperial Death March” from Star Wars. The music then proceeds energetically with added percussion into the “Protect America” theme that features a silhouette of a warship at sea and a dramatic eye-level clip of a fighter plane taking off from an aircraft carrier. The ad ends with Christie addressing the camera and definitively stating that he is the only candidate in the race who has had a role in protecting America (although without providing specifics).

Christie’s ad uses sound in several ways. First, it centers on Christie’s sharply worded and taut narrative, which packs a great deal of rhetoric into a very short period of time. Second, it pairs the narrative with accompanying musical scoring that matches still images of politicians’ faces with simple melodic tone-painting. Finally, it uses faux diegetic noise—crowd noises and the sound of a fighter jet take-off—for dramatic effect. These sonic cues tap into typical emotional responses to which film and television audiences are acclimated.

Instead of a slick production, Santorum’s ad is made to mimic an in-person appeal. His voice does not sound processed, it is not edited for flow, and there are moments when his cadence is wobbly. The purity of sound—simple, diegetic sound—differs greatly from Christie’s approach and was meant to draw attention to a forthcoming policy speech, rather than to directly mold a viewer’s emotional attachment to Santorum. It invokes a down-home personal address, perhaps in emulation of the intimate face-to-face campaigning that defines both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. This mode of address, in sharp contrast to Christie’s ad, sonically, visually, and stylistically makes reference to personal encounter rather than popular media, and is linked to a lengthy exposition of policy (delivered a few days later) rather than contemporary emotional triggers.

A short examination of these two ads suggests that there are currently two approaches to campaigning. One method involves candidates embodying the ideal of a statesman, Commander-in-Chief, and politician. In the other, a candidate plays the everyman (i.e. non-politician, outsider, or contrarian). Christie’s ad projects the former, touting his experience in crisis management and national security issues, and his belief in hard-nosed international negotiation. The ad sounds powerful, imposing, and definitive. Santorum embodies the latter, separating himself from his former employment as congressman and senator, and painting himself as an advocate, rather than an executive. The stripped-down approach without obvious editing, a single camera angle, and direct address provide a sympathetic sample of a humble candidate asking the viewer for a favor.

We can also speculate about the target audiences for these ads. The appeal of Christie’s slick product is that it falls in line with major media. It is meant to be effective with those who are accustomed to media-intense marketing campaigns and derive information and lifestyle from advertising. It uses the sonic language of film and the fast-cutting imagery and voice-overs common to thirty-second television ads. “Protect America” is, in every sense of the word, intended for the mainstream, specifically challenging other establishment contenders. Christie has positioned himself as an establishment candidate, a Republican governor in a Democratic state, and an advocate of mainstream fiscal conservatism, national defense, and law and order. His campaign makes few attempts to exhibit the ideological purity of the Tea Party movement or the ethics of Evangelical Republicans. This ad stays away from ethical issues and focuses on statecraft. Its sonic language depends on viewers’ engagement with popular culture, and its efficacy is based in knowledge of recent US history and current events, not Biblical themes or references to the Constitution.

In contrast, Santorum was likely making a play for alienated voters, those who are turned off by high-budget production of political theater and felt abandoned by corporate-oriented conservatives. As we can see from Santorum’s 2012 Iowa campaign, his success was mainly with rural populations. Pitted against Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, Santorum succeeded partly because Iowans were frustrated with establishment Republicans and were looking for a fiscally and morally conservative alternative. (As we can see from this 2016 map, Ted Cruz’s anti-establishment campaign found success in the same areas as Santorum did in 2012.) Santorum’s 2016 living-room appeal was meant for similarly frustrated voters—those who might have identified with the Tea Party but were turned off by governmental gridlock and failure to provide a clear plan or material benefit. The fact that he addressed labor and immigration issues indicates that he was aiming for these same rural voters who perhaps feel left behind as the economy heals, but wages continue to stagnate. His sound is an attempt to comfort and invite, not to manipulate or emotionally stimulate. He is appealing to anxiety, an affect that according to anthropologist George Marcus, sharpens attention and can be utilized to foster deeper engagement and attention to detail. Both candidates are using sound to appeal to a small, specific base—what is needed to gain votes in early primaries and caucuses. These two contrasting ads are tailored to affective dispositions and ways of engaging politics and mass consumption.

From these analyses we can see the ways that two former candidates from the Republican field conceive of both the electorate and their key to victory. We also hear how the sounds they choose inform who listens and what effect the ad has on them. These sonic subtleties are strategically relevant in tight races where the difference between a seat at the prime-time debate and the “Happy Hour” debate rests on a single polling point, and as we saw recently, a poor showing means the end of a campaign and hopes for the White House. Analyzing sound deepens our understanding of the democratic process and our place in it.

For Discussion

  1. Examine recent campaign ads. Who are they appealing to and what are their tactics?
  2. How do campaign ads for Iowa differ from those in New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Nevada?
  3. How do campaign ads differ from the primary to the general election?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s