Pop Culture Meets Presidential Politics

With Romney comparing Obama to Kim Kardashian, Bachmann invoking the Thatcher movie and the Duggar Reality TV clan stumping for Santorum, all signs point to a campaign year of odd media meldings.

Mitt Romney's recent declaration comparing President Obama's performance to Kim Kardashian's quickly dashed marriage marked another sign that we're in for a silly season of odd media meldings in which pop culture meets presidential politics in ever-changing ways.

A new Michele Bachmann ad airing in Iowa crowns her "America's 'Iron Lady'" and flashes a picture of Margaret Thatcher – a spot apparently pegged, as The Hollywood Reporter notes, to the just-released movie starring Meryl Streep as the former British prime minister. Meanwhile, Jim Bob Duggar and 12 of his children – stars of the TLC reality show "19 Kids and Counting" – left their crowded Arkansas home to campaign in Iowa this week for Rick Santorum.

Touting celebrity endorsements and invoking historic figures and pop culture references on the campaign trail, of course, are nothing new. But the form the devices are taking as of late is a reflection of the devolving definition of celebrity – reality TV stars as pop cultural benchmarks and potential influencers – and of candidates trying to use the changing media landscape to stand out in a crowded field.

The ongoing series of Republican debates has been likened to a reality show by some – including Obama, who compared the sessions to "Survivor." Asked in October whether he’d been watching the debates, the President said, "I’m going to wait until everybody is voted off the island."

His quip came on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" – the latest entertainment show appearance by a president who has been criticized by some for making too many such guest spots, including a stint on “Mythbusters.”

We’ve already seen some of the GOP candidates flock to the late-night comedy show circuit, seemingly with greater frequency and somewhat earlier in the contest, compared to past campaigns. Rick Perry mocked his verbal gaffes on "Late Show With David Letterman." Jon Huntsman joked about his low profile on "Saturday Night Live." Bachmann showed a good sense of humor on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," and likely scored some post-show points with the apology she received for The Roots' tasteless choice of entry music.

Who can blame those trying to get hired for the most important job in the land for seeking all the exposure they can when the likes of Donald Trump, a billionaire, a possible third-party candidate – and, perhaps most importantly, a reality TV star – can snatch away attention with a blustery barb? Most of the GOP candidates, meanwhile, wouldn’t mind a nod from another Reality TV star and potential kingmaker: 2004 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Even amid the high stakes, watching the pop culture-tinged elements of this contest – part soap opera, part sporting event – undoubtedly is part of the allure, much like viewing the latest Kardashian show or following “America Idol.” Get ready for 10 more months of keeping up with the candidates.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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