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Presidential Race Takes Over Pop Culture as Hopefuls Embrace Celebrity Status

Bernie Sanders looked exhausted as he got off a flight from Las Vegas in October at Burbank Bob Hope Airport and walked through the concourse, to be met by a reporter with a question.

The query concerned the record ratings for the first Democratic debate, and Sanders gave a serious, on-message answer that tied the Nielsens to his campaign’s core message, saying the numbers proved that viewers are interested in “the real crises facing the American middle class.”

An hour later, Sanders was decidedly more lighthearted, dancing on a Warner Bros. soundstage during an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” where he answered questions about his hair, whether he’d ever been in handcuffs and his favorite member of One Direction.

Anita Kunz for Variety

It’s nothing new for candidates to gamely turn to showbiz outlets to reach the electorate. But in this crazy election cycle, what is new is the magnitude of such activity.

Never has politics been so blended with entertainment. Contentious presidential debates help drive larger audiences than most new fall series; candidates are eager to take part in sketches on late-night TV and strive to be hip to pop-culture references, to sprinkle catch-phrases into their tweets and to reveal their music playlists; and celebrity surrogates are as polarizing as the candidates themselves.

It’s a climate in which celebrity status seems to translate into political clout, and in which level of exposure is scrutinized as much as polling numbers.

A carnival atmosphere has always surrounded presidential campaigns, but the mix of pop with politics has become serious business that translates to awareness, attention and adulation. MediaQuant, an analytics firm, drew headlines last month when it calculated Donald Trump’s “earned media” output — a dollar amount tied to the free exposure he has gotten from countless interviews, magazine covers, talk-show skits and morning-show call-in interviews. The tally was $2.4
billion — more than the combined total for Hillary Clinton ($947 million), Ted Cruz ($532 million) and Sanders ($480 million).

By another measurement — exposure across hundreds of consumer publications — Trump and Clinton beat sports stars like Tom Brady and celebrities like Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber when it comes to the value of their “earned” media, according to MediaQuant.

“One of the things I have gotten marginally famous for years ago was saying, ‘Politics is show business for ugly people,’ ” says political consultant Paul Begala, chief strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore ticket. “And so much more today than ever,” he adds. “It is becoming both more showbiz-y and more ugly.”

Take Hillary Clinton, whose cameo on “Saturday Night Live” drew enough of a stir that the candidate has embraced other scripted shows, including making a highly publicized appearance on Comedy Central sitcom “Broad City.” Her campaign has countered the news-media drumbeat of “those damn emails” and Goldman Sachs speeches with exposure that is humorous and self-deprecating. In March, the Clinton campaign unveiled an unusual 30-second spot on ABC that featured the stars of Shonda Rhimes’ shows — and that ran the night those series aired. The network was apparently concerned enough over potential viewer confusion that it released a statement noting that “broadcasters are required by the FCC to carry these ads.”

Cruz, whose image was heavily defined by D.C. media as the man who once helped shut down the government, made a habit of sprinkling into his speeches references to “Star Wars,” along with TV-born catchphrases like “jump the shark” and a reenactment of the “mostly dead” scene from “The Princess Bride.” Just a few months into his campaign, he appeared in a Buzzfeed video in which he did an array of impressions from “The Simpsons.”

Bernie Sanders visits with “Ellen”; Hillary Clinton cozies up to“Broad City’s” Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson; Ted Cruz channels “Simpsons” characters for Buzzfeed. Courtesy of Comedy Central/NBC/Buzzfeed

When Sanders first entered the race, he seemed so laser-focused on his core message that he couldn’t be bothered with offbeat questions on lifestyle topics. Last August, he scolded a New York Times writer who asked him about the scrutiny of Hillary Clinton’s hair vs. his. But by the time he did Ellen’s show, he was game to laugh.

Then there’s Donald Trump, who entered the campaign (down an escalator) already an entertainment celebrity via “The Apprentice,” but one with a rather high negative ‘Q’ score. He countered with shtick — a break-all-the-rules strategy in which all publicity is good publicity. In the first Republican debate, when Megyn Kelly asked him about his treatment of women, his first instinct wasn’t to attack the question or Kelly (although he eventually did) but to get in a nasty one-liner about Rosie O’Donnell.

Mark McKinnon, political consultant and co-creator of Showtime’s “The Circus,” which documents the ongoing campaign, says Americans are looking to be entertained as well as informed. “So to break through the clutter,” he says, “the candidates are compelled to look to nontraditional venues and formats to communicate their message.

“One thing we’ve learned doing ‘The Circus’ is that voters are hungry for authenticity,” he adds. “They want to see what the candidates are like beyond the talking points, debates and speeches. So, alternative approaches give them an opportunity to show a side of themselves that voters rarely see but want to see. It gives voters more context and nuance for what kind of person the candidate is.”

Kristina Schake, deputy communications director for the Clinton campaign, says appearances on entertainment shows are great avenues to reach people, and have allowed the candidate to share information younger voters may not know about, such as her time at Wellesley College or with the Children’s Defense Fund, before she was Secretary of State.

Bits on “Saturday Night Live” and other shows, she says, “have been invaluable.”

“The skit of Hillary playing Val the bartender [on “SNL”] and Kate McKinnon playing Hillary was one of the most talked about television appearances in terms of reach this cycle,” Schake says. “These moments matter because they transcend party affiliation, and everyone can enjoy them. The Secretary has enjoyed them too, and still can’t believe they convinced her to sing in it.”

“One of the things I have gotten marginally famous for years ago was saying, ‘Politics is show business for ugly people.’ And so much more today than ever. It is becoming both more showbiz-y and more ugly.”
Paul Begala, political strategist

The rise in such appearances also is a function of a fragmented media universe.

Amy Dacey, CEO of the Democratic National Committee, says, “You have to go to where people are getting their information, and where people are watching. Some times I think candidates go to places where they think they can get their message across in a fast way, but they also diversify. They are talking to print reporters. They are talking on cable news. They are talking on social media. And they are having some appearances on some of these shows. But the bottom line is to get more people engaged and realizing about the election and what is at stake, so I think you have to factor in all of those things.”

Television has long been seen as an outlet to connect with voters — but some candidates have expressed reluctance. Almost 50 years ago, as Richard Nixon’s handlers carefully crafted a comeback, they convinced him to do a guest spot on “The Mike Douglas Show,” the soft, celebrity-driven talk show based in Philadelphia.

“You know, politics is more and more becoming show business,” Nixon said, as he bantered over such topics as his tan with Douglas and that week’s co-hosts, Sandler and Young. Off camera, Nixon reportedly said, “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected.”

Nine months later, having secured the Republican nomination amid the tumult of 1968, Nixon tapped pop culture again. He did the hottest show on TV, “Laugh-In,” in a clip that lasted just a few seconds but showed he was hip to what was hip. “Sock it to me?” he said, repeating the show’s catchphrase. “Laugh-In” creator George Schlatter notes that the show tried, but failed, to get rival Hubert Humphrey to appear.

In the years since, candidates have tapped pop culture to varying degrees: President Gerald Ford made a pre-filmed cameo on “Saturday Night Live” in the midst of the 1976 primary campaign; Ronald Reagan, the first actor to become president, used a signature line from one of his movies — “Go win one for the Gipper” — as a call to action for his campaign; and Bill Clinton played the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” during the 1992 race.

“When we put Bill Clinton on ‘Arsenio Hall,’ it was scandalous,” Begala recalls. “We got a ton of static. And now it is mandatory.”

Perhaps no candidate or president has been more savvy in trying to command attention through entertainment than President Obama. He was the first sitting commander-in-chief to make an in-studio appearance on a late-night talk show, when he sat down with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” less than two months after taking office. In 2013, his appearance with Zach Galifianakis on Funny or Die’s “Between Two Ferns” was credited with helping drive enrollment in Obama Care. By the time he appeared in Jerry Seinfield’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” last year, any talk of whether Obama’s cameos are “presidential” had given way to discussion of whether they are laugh-out-loud funny.

By the time of this year’s campaign, it wasn’t a question of whether a candidate would do late-night TV; it was how far they would go to make a mark.

Donald Trump has been so ubiquitous in the media this campaign season, sometimes it seems like there must be more than one of him. Taran Killam and Darrell Hammond help fuel that conceit on a skit from the Trump-hosted Nov. 7 airing of “Saturday Night Live.” Courtesy of NBC

While late-night interviews with candidates have made news, comedic skits have made lasting impressions, like the one in which Clinton took a phone call from Trump (aka Fallon) on “The Tonight Show,” or when Mitt Romney read mean tweets from Trump on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” or, most prominently, when Trump himself hosted “Saturday Night Live.”

Jon Macks, a writer on Leno’s “Tonight Show” throughout its run who specializes in political humor, says that with candidates popping up all over late night, mere appearances no longer pack the punch they once did.

“It is what it is,” he says. “You are not going to see JFK, when he was a senator, on Jack Paar for an hour. Or John Kerry on Jay Leno having a legitimate and smart conversation about policies. You see it once in a while, but not to the degree you have seen it in the past.”

Part of the reason is the drive for skits that will travel virally — not necessarily a desire to succinctly convey a policy position.

“In a world defined by six-second Vines, the eight-second sound bite seems like the Gettysburg Address,” Macks says.

“The candidates are entertainment in and of themselves,” he adds. “When candidates go on ‘Jimmy Fallon,’ they are not going on to position themselves with the electorate. They are going on to be part of a skit. They are not doing a bit to lead to some big policy discussion. It is entertainment as pure entertainment.”

For the few candidates who balk, the alternative is to be out-entertained.

Dave Berg, co-producer of Leno’s “Tonight Show,” was a supporter of Marco Rubio and urged the campaign to maximize opportunities on late night. Instead, he said, the campaign squandered its chances: Rubio’s appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” in January, for instance, turned out to be unmemorable. Berg calls the interview “substandard,” and wonders why the Rubio campaign didn’t try to tap further into pop culture, given the candidate’s telegenic personality and youth.

When candidates do try comedy, the right choices are “very, very important,” Berg says, even though such appearances are typically short on policy details. “It is important that you get the right sketch. If it is the wrong sketch, it can be disastrous.”

When Kerry appeared on “Leno” during the 2004 campaign, he insisted on riding in on a motorcycle. The result, says Berg, “reminded me of Dukakis riding in the tank with a helmet on.”

Candidates almost always have veto power over a sketch. “Some of our writers would write 10 bits that would be rejected by the candidates,” Berg recalls. “Our writers couldn’t stand Al Gore. His people would reject bit after bit, even though they were going to vote for him.”

Still, rarely were candidates unwilling to do any routine at all, he says. “One thing I have learned about people in the political world, and also about commentators and journalists: In each and every one of these people is a comedian dying to get out.”

Actor Mark Ruffalo, an activist-actor who is backing Sanders, believes authenticity is the key to successfully connecting with voters via entertainment platforms. He notes that his son’s favorite shows are on YouTube, featuring user-generated celebrities, because “it has a credibility to it. There is no artifice.

“When candidates go on ‘Jimmy Fallon,’ they are not going on to position themselves with the electorate. They are going on to be part of a skit. It is entertainment as pure entertainment.”
Jon Macks, writer

“It is reaching people in ways that the mainstream media can’t, for one,” he adds. “It is a direct line to your constituency. There is no middle man.”

Such a targeted connection is important, he says, because of the way people consume media. “We live in this era of decentralization,” he explains. “The entertainment industry is decentralizing. The news is decentralizing. What you are seeing is politicians finally realizing it is a way of reaching people that feels less artificial.”

For one week earlier this month, Clinton ended Trump’s dominance of one audience metric when she surpassed him in weekly YouTube views, according to video identification tech firm Zefr. A reason: The clip of her struggle to use a New York subway card was a big draw, with more than 1 million views.

Begala points out that as much as we’ve seen the fusion of campaigns and entertainment, what we have yet to witness this cycle is a breakthrough viral hit on the order of Will.i.am’s 2008 “Yes, We Can” video, which featured Obama’s New Hampshire primary speech and went on to post more than 20 million hits on YouTube.

“That was groundbreaking,” Begala says. “I think you will get that, but it has to be organic. It can’t be forced by some political consultant like me.”

There has been unique user-generated content. Cruz’s obsession with “Star Wars” inspired a video — “The Constitution Strikes Back,” with Cruz as a Jedi warrior — created by producer Joel Gilbert.

Gilbert made the video independently of the campaign — although Cruz’s team did tweet it out after it was posted. Gilbert says he saw a need for something that could do more to market Cruz’s image and background, particularly to younger voters, given that the candidate is 45 and now the youngest in the race. “Generally these Republican strategists, who have been running campaigns for years, don’t have much of an affinity of how powerful pop culture can be,” Gilbert says.

As much as showbiz is intrinsic to politics, the downside is when theatrics overshadow serious thinking. One of the more telling quotes from the current candidates came from Trump, who discussed his media ubiquity with Time in March.

“I go on one of these shows, and the ratings double,” he said. “They triple. And that gives you power. It’s not the polls. It’s the ratings.”

Star Jones, former co-host of “The View,” who has been a surrogate for Clinton, says that the vitriol of this campaign is a contrast to previous cycles. “It is almost as if we have gone to the reality-show world of politics.”

That is especially true when it comes to celebrities entering the political area — and 2016 is destined to define the limits of that success.

Fred Grandy, who ran for Congress and won in 1986, two years after starring in “The Love Boat,” says that Trump is running up against the public’s desire for the next act. The billionaire spent the time after his wins on Super Tuesday and his loss in Wisconsin going from one reality-show-like flap to another.

“He has not been able to take the enormous advantage that celebrity confers upon you, and deepen that into a kind of gravitas and wisdom that gives people a certain comfort level,” Grandy says. Trump’s recent win in New York helped him rebound, but he still faces high unfavorable polling numbers.

The candidate, Grandy adds, has seized on two key issues, immigration and trade, and has capitalized on his ability to stage a show. “Donald Trump has a speaking cadence that is somewhat between standup and rap, but people like that. It is talking to somebody and not down to somebody.”

Still, at a certain point voters will want assurance that candidates will be presidential.

“Trump has had popularity,” Grandy says. “It doesn’t mean it is a love affair. It’s an infatuation.”

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