Recommendation Number 13 on the Republican Party’s recently released list of demographic outreach priorities is to “Expand our presence on more pop culture oriented outlets to ensure our message is reaching all voters.” A few years ago, I might have scoffed at this recommendation. The electorate, I thought, became serious enough during high presidential election season to make sure it reached the message of presidential candidate’s in traditional ways e.g., watching debates, viewing ads, and checking mainstream outlets. If anything, it seemed to me, an over-emphasis on pop culture outlets might backfire by undermining the seriousness of a candidate for president.
If that idealized electorate ever existed, it no longer exists today. And Barack Obama masterfully exploited this reality. As Tevi Troy reminds us:
Throughout 2012, President Obama maintained a laser-like focus not on the economy, but on his cultural image. For a sitting commander in chief, Obama continually demonstrated an unprecedented and often disturbing level of pop culture fluency, showing himself to be up to date on music, movies, and especially TV. Obama, at one time or another, mentioned Homeland, Modern Family, Boardwalk Empire, and Mad Men as among his favorite shows.
In addition to being on the cutting edge of the small screen, Obama also knew where to go to demonstrate how hip he was, appearing on more than two dozen “soft” entertainment-style interviews during the campaign. He “slow jammed” the news on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and let Fallon call him the “Preezy of the United Steezy.”…He was also a popular guest on Oprah and The View, appearing five times on the latter. At one point, he chose to appear on The View over meeting key world leaders who were visiting the U.S. for the United Nations General Assembly.
The Obama campaign was up-front about what its man was trying to accomplish. In response to the MSM’s grumbling about Obama’s media priorities, spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter explained that soft media outlets such as People or Entertainment Tonight are “equally important” compared to the hard news side of things.
In the end, young voters overwhelmingly supported Obama, by a margin of 67-30.
Troy recognizes, as I hope the Party establishment does, that Republicans cannot attain anything like the same reverence from the pop culture world that Obama did. For one thing, the icons and arbiters of the pop culture dislike Republicans, and not because they are insufficiently conversant with hip hop and Mad Men. For another, a conservative party will rarely find itself as comfortable with youth culture as a liberal one.
As Troy concludes, however, this doesn’t mean that Republicans can’t improve their relationship with pop culture. But declarations of affection won’t accomplish that objective:
A move towards hipness must come from the party leaders themselves, like Marco Rubio, a hip hop fan, or Paul Ryan, who is partial to heavy metal. These politicians recognize that Republicans need to shrink the pop-culture gap if they want to communicate effectively with voters, and win.