Welcome to the pop culture primary.
In just the past week, Jeb Bush slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon – complete with sexual innuendos – and Hillary Clinton released her Spotify playlist including Pharrell’s “Happy.” Before that, Clinton debuted on Instagram, Rand Paul mastered Twitter trolling and Marco Rubio offered his take on Pitbull.
It’s all designed to get voters – particularly those young, hip, always-distracted millennials – to tune in as they tweet, text and Facebook. But with the explosion of outlets – from cable news, radio, blogs, and social media – and the huge field of candidates, the race for pop culture resonance is amplified as candidates try to break through the clutter and make a name for themselves.
In some ways, this deserves a #thanksObama.
During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama was the pop culture candidate. He built on Bill Clinton’s saxophone skills by having rappers, singers and actresses campaign for him while Oprah Winfrey endorsed him in a giant football stadium in South Carolina. He appeared on the cover of Vibe Magazine’s “juice issue” looking at his watch above the headline “It’s Obama Time.”
And it seems so quaint now but candidate Obama announced his choice of Joe Biden via text message, an acknowledgment that phones were the most important news broadcasters. As President, Obama has opted for local press interviews, web outfits like BuzzFeed, where he pitched Obamacare and used a selfie stick, and talk show appearances that become viral video clips.
Of course, the marriage of pop culture and presidential politics isn’t new.
Way before Bill Clinton played the sax on Arsenio Hall and went on MTV where he answered a question about what type of underwear he wears, William Henry Harrison in 1840 transformed himself from a blue-blood to a cider drinking log cabin lover.
“He ran the first pop culture campaign to show that he was an ordinary person and it was incredibly effective,” said Allan Lichtman, a historian at American University. “Things really began to change in the 1960s with the use of pop culture TV.”
And the Kennedy clan orchestrated their own brand of Camelot cool that had women shopping for pillbox hats. Richard Nixon, who famously appeared sweaty in his 1960 television debate against Kennedy, went for a few do-overs after he lost, appearing on one late night show playing the piano and then later, mocking his uncool rep on “Laugh In” as a way to show that he was in on the joke.
“Sock it to me,” he deadpanned, repeating the shows signature catchphrase in September 1968, just before November the election.
(Whatever cool points he might have gained by that appearance, were quickly confiscated when, as president, he strolled on the beach in wingtips and a suit.)
Then there was the Gipper.
Ronald “Reagan was the epitome of cool. He was above cool. He was post-cool,” said Robert Thompson, who heads the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. “He was arguably the coolest president ever.”
Thompson said that the barrage of TV appearances in non-news formats and the pop culture optics that surround campaigns can work really well.
“The TV appearances are the equivalent of what a whistle stop used to be, they still have to do that, but the modern whistle stop is The View and Fallon and Colbert,” Thompson said. “And you slowly build up, if nothing else, the base of people who know you.”
There is also the pop culture-as-cudgel strategy, long a staple of presidential politics. Dan Quayle railed against Murphy Brown. Tipper Gore went after hip hop. And now, Mike Huckabee, has picked up that same critique, scolding Beyonce and the Obamas for allowing their daughters to listen to the pop singer. He also made a joke about Caitlyn Jenner, whereas others like Lindsey Graham have treaded lightly, not wanting to offend.
Of course, there is always danger in courting cool. Anyone caught in the act of trying to be cool is automatically deemed not-so-cool. Witness Marco Rubio, who dropped a Jay-Z lyric on the Senate floor during a filibuster. He was later quizzed on Fox News about which Wu Tang member he likes, but couldn’t quite figure out which one he liked best.
Also, he can’t quite make up his mind on Miami’s own Pitbull.
“The danger is falling on your face and some candidates have had trouble with it,” Lichtman said. “But most of these guys are really slick.”