Campaigning on all platforms

YouTube frame grab of a campaign ad by Obama supporter Samuel L. Jackson (center) denouncing voter apathy.
YouTube frame grab of a campaign ad by Obama supporter Samuel L. Jackson (center) denouncing voter apathy.

Pop culture has long figured in presidential races - what's new is the war-on-all-fronts role of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, stage, and screen.

Posted: October 15, 2012

In this 2012 election season, the nationwide battle is not only presidential - it's pop-cultural.

At the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August, Clint Eastwood stood up for Mitt Romney and talked down to an empty chair in which he pretended an invisible President Obama was sitting.

Last weekend, pop singer Katy Perry performed at a Los Angeles fund-raiser for Obama, and tweeted a photo to her 27 million followers of her red, white, and blue fingernails decorated with Democratic donkeys and pictures of the president.

The Democrats have Jay-Z and Beyoncé, who raised money for Obama at a $40,000-a-head event in New York in September.

And the Republicans have Kid Rock, the Detroit rocker-rapper-country singer who has been outspoken in favor of the Republican ticket. Kid Rock has granted Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, permission to use his "Born Free" on the campaign trail, in contrast to rock acts such as Rage Against the Machine, which Ryan likes, and Silversun Pickups, which asked Romney to stop using its "Panic Switch."

The pop-cultural contest is being waged by the candidates, their surrogates, and their satirists - like Saturday Night Live comics Jason Sudeikis and Jay Pharoah, who last weekend reenacted the first presidential debate.

The opening skit portrayed Romney as a liar ("I killed Osama bin Laden," Sudeikis-as-Romney claimed) and Obama as wondering what to get his wife as an anniversary present while allowing Romney to walk all over him.

"It was a very effective piece of media commentary," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election. "Obama was cast as distracted and inept, and Romney's cast as being duplicitous."

Political satire is not new, of course. And while an 8-foot-tall, yellow-feathered character from a children's educational show might not have been turned into a political football before this campaign, as happened to Sesame Street's Big Bird, celebrity involvement in presidential campaigns has been going on for decades.

As Jamieson points out, Henry Fonda traded on his Everyman reputation in the movies when he endorsed John F. Kennedy in 1960, and actor Carroll O'Connor, in character as Archie Bunker, spoke out for JFK's younger brother, Ted, in a 1980 primary campaign against Jimmy Carter.

Pop culture is being used differently this year, mainly because of the way in which the Internet has evolved since 2008, when YouTube's impact was most clearly evident with "Yes We Can," the celebrity-studded Obama campaign song by the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am.

This year, the Web is again awash in political videos, with two noteworthy ones on the Democratic side, starring Sarah Silverman on voter suppression ("Let My People Vote") and Samuel L. Jackson ("Wake the F- Up") on voter apathy, each noteworthy for its profanity and complexity.

This year, Twitter is the agent of change.

"The capacity of the Internet to deliver has increased fairly dramatically," Jamieson says. "So when Lady Gaga" - who has more than 30 million Twitter followers - "tweets something about bullying, she reaches more people than any PSA ever has before. The audience is now participating in real time in reframing events and addressing each other directly."

That's a sea change in how politics works.

With the potential of any posting to go viral, the campaigns are conscious of competing on every possible platform. If there's an official Barack Obama playlist on the music-streaming service Spotify - key tracks: Raphael Saadiq's "Keep Marchin'," Bruce Springsteen's "We Take Care of Our Own," Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)" - you can bet there's a Mitt Romney playlist, too.

And what's on Mitt's hipper-than-you-might-think list? "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" by the Soggy Bottom Boys, "In Dreams" by Roy Orbison, and "Read My Mind" by anthemic rockers the Killers, whose singer, Brandon Flowers, is, like Romney, a Mormon.

"The more people you talk to, the more likely you are to win," Zachary Moffatt, the Romney campaign's digital director, told the New York Times. "The more people interact with Mitt, the more likely he is to win. Social extends and amplifies that."

So there's a Romney Tumblr blog on the web, featuring a photo of the candidate with former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway and "7 Incredible Personal Stories About Mitt Romney That You May Not Know." Not to be outdone, Obama's Tumblr blog comes with pictures of the president dancing with his wife, Michelle, and a tweet by Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO series Girls, showing her support for Obama's position on gay marriage.

Last week, the candidates competed with popular TV show references in their stump speeches. Romney appropriated the line "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" from the NBC drama Friday Night Lights. And Obama said that, during the debate, Romney tried to "wiggle out" of his positions, like tax cuts for the wealthy. "It was like Dancing With the Stars. Or maybe it was Extreme Makeover."

Along with Eastwood, whose GOP convention performance was widely panned but came back to bite Obama - in a satirical New Yorker cover by Barry Blitt, showing Romney debating an empty chair - Romney has his share of pop-culture supporters. African American actress Stacey Dash came out for the former Massachusetts governor this week - and was widely criticized for it on Twitter. Musicians for Romney include Lynyrd Skynyrd front man Johnny Van Zant, country singer Trace Adkins, who performed at the GOP convention, and Detroit rocker Ted Nugent, whose diatribe against Obama at an NRA convention in April provoked outrage.

The list of boldface entertainers publicly backing Obama is somewhat longer, as is traditionally the case with Democrats, though Obama hasn't inspired either a mass fund-raising effort like 2004's Vote for Change tour or a popular flashpoint equivalent to the 2008 video by will.i.am.

Obama's supporters of note include the guitarist Ry Cooder, whose full-length Election Special album includes "Mutt Romney Blues," sung in the voice of a dog trapped on top of the candidate's car (see article on H4). Satirist Randy Newman has released "I'm Dreaming" ("of a white president"), suggesting that much of the antipathy toward Obama has been race-based.

On Wednesday, Kid Rock tweeted to call attention to a "public service film" in which he taunts an Obama fan at a bar: "Hope and change, huh? Four years later, working folks are hoping to have a little change left over after your boy O'Bummer gets done taxing them to death and redistributing the wealth."

The drinker he has sidled up to is Sean Penn, actor and political activist, who, after being called a "commie" by his cohort, responds in kind, calling his adversary a "NASCAR-loving, Cayman Islands bank-account-having, warmongering, redneck, toothless, Wall Street troglodyte."

We're not meant to take their vehement invective seriously. The idea behind the Jameson Stafford-directed short is to "tear down the one-dimensional stereotypes portrayed by the media by confronting them head-on." So by the end of the 11-minute clip, the duo make nice and go on a road trip to buy Rock a Prius with a gun rack, while Penn tries on a NASCAR shirt.

It's cute but jarring to see the figures from either side of the pop-culture ideological aisle pretending to bury the hatchet. We've gotten so used to watching them at each other's throats.


Contact Dan DeLuca

at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix,"

at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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