Playing to women voters, candidates show softer side

President Obama was in New York recently to speak to members of the U.N. General Assembly. Along the way, however, the prez found time to appear on ABC’s “The View,” with wife Michelle — a decision that drew some heat from mainstream media orgs for prioritizing daytime TV ahead of international policy.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney’s recent guest spot with wife Ann on “Live! With Kelly & Michael” got some blowback when the Republican nominee shared his thoughts on … Snooki. How presidential is that?

Despite the grumblings of so-called hard-news orgs, these appearances illustrate the growing importance of such shows to campaigns that increasingly are targeting their messages to reach specific voter groups — in this case, women. And with polling showing a marked difference in candidate preference between women and men in the coming election, it’s easy to see how stopping in on prime access or scheduling an interview with People magazine can wind up in the political bucket list.

The National Journal’s Ron Brownstein points out that Democrats have been particularly aggressive in reaching out to the “waitress mom” vote (women without a college degree), and have gone well beyond the 24-hour news networks and local newscasts in their advertising buys. “The Obama campaign has heavily targeted its ads on daytime shows that attract a large audience of downscale women, including programs like ‘Judge Judy’ and ‘Dr. Phil,’ and networks like Lifetime, Bravo and the Hallmark Channel,” Brownstein wrote.

Whether one classifies these ad buys as “downscale” or “upscale,” the allure of such shows is that they reach a defined demographic, and the shows themselves provide formats more suited to humanizing a candidate than hitting them with a prosecutor’s list of questions.

When “Entertainment Tonight” landed an interview with the Obamas in August, with Nancy O’Dell dispatched to the Iowa campaign trail, members of the White House press corps griped that the president hadn’t formally taken questions from them for more than two months. Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter defended the decision by saying that “ET” and other entertainment media were equally important to harder news orgs. “I think that’s where a lot of Americans get their news,” she said.

Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of “Entertainment Tonight,” says that the hubub over their interview “tickled” her. “I understand how it feels if you don’t have the story,” she says. “But it feels great to have it.”

“Entertainment Tonight’s” audience is about 65% to 70% women, Bell Blue says, and according to Nielsen, it had 4.8 million viewers in its most recent week.

The candidates also made the “ET” rounds in the 2008 election cycle, when the show landed interviews with not only John and Cindy McCain, but also a rare joint interview in Detroit with the Obamas and Joseph and Jill Biden. “My granddaughters will think I have finally made it,” the future vice president said to Mary Hart.

This time around, “ET” has requested a joint interview with the Romneys and Paul and Janna Ryan. Bell Blue says that the Romney campaign, having had to postpone its planned interview in August, understands the importance of an appearance. “ET” did interview Ann Romney in late April, talking about her struggles with MS and her “love story” with her husband.

“I think both sides realize our viewers are very important to them, that it is an audience that they may not be able to reach,” Bell Blue says, citing the show’s mix of working women who may bypass the evening newscasts. “(The candidates) realize this is another way to get their message out.”

The show also inquires about the kinds of things that others likely would not: The August interview with the Obamas was a mix of personal questions and pop culture references. The president talked of George Clooney, and the first lady said she had not read “50 Shades of Grey.”

That’s not to say daytime shows focus on the frivolous. “ET’s” O’Dell asked Obama about the most pressing controversy of the day as well — a comment Biden had made at a campaign rally that painted the GOP’s drive to deregulate Wall Street as an effort to put workers “back in chains.” The president dismissed the controversy as “just sort of a WWF wrestling part of politics.”

Michael Gelman, executive producer of “Live! With Kelly and Michael,” says that daytime shows have become savvier, and that more have reached out to the campaigns. “Live,” too, is predominantly watched by women, but it also includes viewers outside the 9-5 workaday world, which also includes a wider mix of seniors, students and those who work at home, as well as the underemployed and unemployed — segments that are perhaps susceptible to an alternative message in a faltering economy. A hurdle for the Romney campaign has been to humanize the candidate. So the “Live” interview covered three segments in which, among other things, Ann Romney shared stories of walking in on George W. Bush having a massage, and her husband shared that he wears “as little as possible” to bed.

Gelman says he was surprised at their candor. “For the candidates, it is a huge audience of women who make a difference and have a voice,” he says, adding that the show has reached out to the Obamas to appear as well. “We want to meet them as people, and see them in a different light.”

The closer it gets to Election Day, the higher the stakes become, and as much as candidates may like playing it safe, it may be that the rewards of doing “soft-media” are greater than the risks. These are, after all, talkshows, and they will be talked about.

Ironically, Romney’s appearance on “Live! With Kelly and Michael” ran on the same day that Mother Jones released the “47% fundraising” video, which includes the candidate sharing his skepticism about going on “The View,” calling it “high risk, because of the five women on it, only one is conservative, and four are sharp-tongued and not conservative.” The comment had not been out in the ether for more than 24 hours before Romney agreed to appear on the show, some time this month.

By then, it was clear to his campaign that there was a greater risk than going on “The View”: not going on, and being talked about by the show’s hosts anyway.

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