How Pop Culture Changed The 2012 Election

It’s been four years since John McCain tried to tarnish President Obama by suggesting that the candidate was a celebrity–as if all famous politicians aren’t–rather than a man of substance. The tactic didn’t work. If anything, the first Obama term in office was evidence that we were ready for a president who was a celebrity, whose wife’s fashion choices were scrutinized and imitated, whose pop culture tastes made headlines and drove viewership, and whose administration became the subject of pop culture itself, from Leslie Knope’s Joe Biden obsession on Parks and Recreation, to Comedy Central’s sketch show Key & Peele, which built its audience in part on the strength of Jordan Peele’s Obama impersonation and its Anger Translator sketch. And now that the 2012 election is over, it’s clear that the dynamic worked in the opposite direction. Campaigners on both sides used these three entertainment industry tactics during the election. And I’d predict that we see more of them in the future:

1. Campaign movies: In 2008, the Obama campaign aired a thirty-minute primetime special in support of his candidacy. This election featured movies even more prominently. There was the so-called “King of Bain” documentary, When Mitt Romney Came To Town, which was produced and distributed by a Super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich’s candidacy:

In the general election, 2016: Obama’s America, a so-called documentary by conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza about Obama’s supposed radicalism, made $33 million at the domestic box office. Dreams From My Real Father, a hilariously paranoid attempt to prove that President Obama’s real father was a Communist and deeply terrible beat poet named Frank Marshall Davis who purportedly seduced Stanley Ann Dunham, was mailed to voters in swing states.

Mainstream movies that tried to capture the spirit of the campaign had more mixed success. Butter, an attempt to satirize both Midwestern butter-carving, and Michele Bachmann, ended up doing only $73,000 in domestic box office in a very limited run: condescension and Bachmann’s fading political star proved not to be a winning combination. Jay Roach’s The Campaign, the Will Ferrell-Zach Galifianakis vehicle about a suddenly-competitive House race, did better, taking in $86 million. The combination of Ferrell’s star power and a more generalized indictment of political dishonesty was probably always going to be a more potent bipartisan draw. In the future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see mainstream movie studios starting to produce or acquire documentaries about the candidates themselves. 2016 is the kind of thing that might be an embarrassment, but it demonstrated that there’s real money out there in catering to politically-engaged audiences for the studio that wants to reach out and grab it.

2. The return of celebrities: Often, people who work in the entertainment industry are dismissed as flakes or idiots when they express their political opinions, no matter how deep their engagement actually runs. And even more importantly, their influence has been treated as if it’s dubious or unquantifiable. But the Obama campaign took the potential influence of celebrities seriously. The campaign’s decision to offer up a dinner with Sarah Jessica Parker as a prize? It was the result of “a data-mining discovery about some supporters: affection for contests, small dinners and celebrity.”

It wasn’t just that celebrities were a lure for supporters who associated their favorite stars with the president: as The Hollywood Reporter explains, events with celebrities were a potent way to activate young people in swing states, getting them to think through the kinds of plans to visit the polls that make voters more likely to turn out on Election Day:

Roberts and Ortner, both Democratic party veterans, coordinated a plan that sent actors and musicians — among them Bruce Springsteen, Katy Perry, John Legend, John Mellencamp and Ricky Martin — to headline events in swing states. Perry was dispatched to North Las Vegas and Milwaukee; Springsteen played Parma, Ohio, Charlottesville, Va. and Ames, Iowa; Martin hit Miami — all key battlegrounds that tipped to Obama.

As thousands of people lined up for events, campaign workers collected cell phone numbers and e-mail and home addresses so the attendees could be contacted and urged to vote for Obama. Those who needed rides to the polls on Election Day were offered a free shuttle service. “For every voter contact we had, we would exponentially build other contacts, and the marketing became horizontal because of it,” says Ortner.

I expect we’ll see much more of this kind of thing in subsequent elections, whether it’s events to raise money–concerts would be a brilliant way to bring in lots of small donors–gather data, or organize people to turn out and vote. Candidates may not like to think of themselves as products. But if celebrities with strong social media networks can get their fans to flock to buy fragrances, deluxe album packages, and concert tickets, getting yourself on a list of endorsed products has some real value. If Republicans have worked harder to get movies and documentaries in the hands of their voters, this is an area where Democrats have a definitive, if not total, advantage. Kid Rock may not appeal to the same demographics as Katy Perry, but the man does have his fans.

3. Viral video: For good and ill, viral videos played a significant role in national elections this year. Elizabeth Warren’s impassioned living-room speech on the debt crisis helped solidify a sense that she was a star progressive:

And video of Mitt Romney’s harshly critical remarks about the 47 percent at a fundraiser, uncovered by Mother Jones, helped consolidate his reputation as an out-of-touch elitist:

These videos were spontaneous and raw. But their impact was undeniable. The question of how to recreate that kind of impact in a controlled way has to be on a lot of campaign operatives’ minds right now. And it’ll be interesting how self-referential and goofy candidates end up being willing to get. I doubt we’ll see politicians embracing auto-tune. But anything’s possible.