Can Republicans Close the Pop Culture Gap?

Can Republicans Close the Pop Culture Gap?

By Tevi Troy - March 21, 2013

The Republican Party has just come out with a new strategy, and number 13 on its list of demographic outreach priorities is to “Expand our presence on more pop culture oriented outlets to ensure our message is reaching all voters.” This finding may be surprising, and atypical for a political party’s strategy, but it recognizes an important fact: The area where President Obama most out-competed Mitt Romney in 2012 was in the sphere of pop culture fluency.

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 told the deejays on a New Mexico radio station that he likes green chili over red, enjoys working out to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, and that his superpower of choice would be the ability to speak any language. 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.

When questioned about Obama’s practice of talking to entertainment hosts rather than White House correspondents, Obama campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter responded that soft media outlets such as People or Entertainment Tonight were “equally important” as the hard news side of things, a fact that the new RNC strategy appears to be recognizing. Some in the White House press corps grumbled -- not too loudly, to be sure -- about being ignored. From Obama’s perspective, though, the strategy paid off, especially with America’s screen-loving youth. Young voters constituted an even greater share of the electorate in 2012 than their surprising showing in 2008, and they overwhelmingly supported Obama, 67-30. Obama also used his strong relationships with pop culture figures to get stars like George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker to direct their pro-Obama efforts toward targeted demographic groups in which the Obama data machine discovered that they would have the greatest appeal.

Mitt Romney could not counter this prolonged pop culture assault. Romney was by no means anti-pop culture. Far from it. He liked citing movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off -- “Bueller? Bueller?” he once asked his non-responsive staff on a conference call. He also enjoyed Seinfeld, and he often referenced a joke that the best time to stop speaking would be after he hit the high note, as Jerry taught George Costanza. As these examples show, Romney was comfortable with the pop culture of his generation, happily citing 80s and 90s icons. When Romney tried to get more contemporary, though, he faced a backlash from a hostile Hollywood. After Ann Romney noted that she and Mitt watched Modern Family, the show’s creator ungraciously tweeted a dig at Romney’s position on gay marriage, writing that “We'll offer her the role of officiant at Mitch & Cam's wedding. As soon as it’s legal.” Needless to say, fellow Modern Family watcher Obama got nothing but accolades and financial support from the show’s bigwigs.

Even Romney backers belittled his apparent pop culture cluelessness. Running mate Paul Ryan gently mocked Romney’s musical tastes at his Republican National Convention acceptance address, joking that he had heard Romney's iPod playlist “on the campaign bus and on hotel elevators.” In a similar vein, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote that Romney “inhabits the world before Mrs. Robinson.”

Romney aside, Republicans will never attain the same reverence from the pop culture world that Obama did. In November of 2012, actor Jamie Foxx referred to the president as “our lord and savior Barack Obama.” But this does not mean that they cannot make improvements when it comes to the relationship with pop culture. If Republicans are to succeed, though, declarations from the RNC will not suffice. 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. 

Tevi Troy is the author of “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House” and a former senior White House aide.

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