Election melds pop culture, politics
Candidates appear on TV as part of efforts to woo voters

By AMANDA CUDA, Staff writer, CT Post

Political candidates have almost always jumped through hoops in their attempt to gain the affec­tion, and votes, of the general public.

Decades ago, that meant the candidates made appearances at all sorts of events, including cir­cuses and fairs, getting their faces seen and in­dulging in the obligatory hand-shaking and baby­kissing. Today, those seeking higher office aren’t as likely to be glimpsed cavort­ing with tigers and elephants.

But that doesn’t mean they’ve left the circus behind.

During this year’s presiden­tial election, the candidates have seemingly been on television 24 hours a day, seven days a week — and not just on news pro­grams.

On Oct. 18, GOP vice presi­dential candidate Sarah Palin made a much-talked-about appearance on “Satur­day Night Live,” giving the series its highest rat­ings since 1994, when skater Nancy Kerrigan host­ed the show. Earlier that week, Palin’s running mate John McCain appeared on “Late Show with David Letterman,” in an attempt to atone for can­celing a previous appearance on the talk show.

These marriages of pop culture and politics aren’t unique to the Republicans. Early in his cam­paign, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama garnered the vocal support of popular talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

This behavior isn’t really new, said Steven Raucher, chairman of the department of commu­nications, film and theater at the University of New Haven. He said politicians appear on talk shows and come­dy shows for the same reason they frolicked at circuses in gen­erations past. “This is simply the 21st century extension of that,” Raucher said. “It simply gives them a broader exposure.”

Other experts agreed. “Pol­itics is using pop culture,” said Henry Schissler, assistant pro­fessor of sociology at Housa­tonic Community College in Bridgeport. Schissler said pol­iticians have been appearing on entertainment programs to reach voters for years, from President Nixon hamming it up on “Laugh-In” to President Clinton getting interviewed on MTV while running for his first term.

These appearances not only expose the candidates to more potential voters, they allow politicians to present a specific image of themselves to the public. The Palin bit on “Satur­day Night Live” is a perfect ex­ample of this, said Rich Han­ley, journalism professor at Quinnipiac University.

“Politicians go on these pro­grams to improve their likabil­ity factor,” he said. “It really was a deflection mechanism, designed to show that Palin was human.”

Prior to her appearance, the vice presidential candidate had been the target of satire on “SNL,” where she was im­personated by actress Tina Fey. One particularly scathing send-up, poking fun at Palin’s interview with Katie Couric, featured Fey reading some of Palin’s actual answers for comic effect.

Given the popularity of these sketches, Palin might have viewed going on the pro­gram as a sort of damage con­trol, said John Orman, chair­man of the politics department at Fairfield University, and an expert on politics and popular culture.

“ She was just kind of ap­pearing to show that she could take a joke,” said Orman, also the co-author of the book “Ce­lebrity Politics.” “Sometimes politicians go on shows to re­pair their image. Sometimes, they go on to appear cooler than they actually are.”

Orman said he found Pal­in’s appearance “ hilarious,” but it might not have garnered more votes for her party. “She’s someone who’s trying to be taken seriously,” he said, adding that appearing on a comedy show might not have helped that cause.

In general, the experts said, appearing on television shows doesn’t guarantee that more people will vote for you. “The media tends to overstate its in­fluence,” Hanley said.

Though these appearances do make politicians more visi­ble, “ultimately, huge overrid­ing issues, such as the econo­my, carry the day,” he said.

Orman agreed that people tend to stick to their guns when it comes to presidential races. If someone doesn’t like Palin’s politics, for example, her “SNL” spot “isn’t going to change anybody’s mind,” Orman said.

There are exceptions to that rule, however. For instance, there are some personalities in the pop culture world who carry a special influence, and whose support can make a dif­ference to a candidate. Such was the case when Winfrey came out in support of Obama, which many believe gave the candidate a big boost.

Raucher said Winfrey’s ef­fect on her fans and support­ers is unique among talk show hosts. “Oprah is a whole sepa­rate phenomenon,” he said. “ Not many talk show hosts give away cars or can create a New York Times best-seller just by endorsing a book.”

Though Winfrey typically puts her stamp of approval on a wide range of products, from books to clothes to food, this was the first time she had en­dorsed a political candidate. The fact that she picked Obama to receive this honor definitely made his stock go up, Schissler said.