Politics & Pop

And What Happens When They Collide

By Aimee Terravechia

What do you do when delivering stump speeches isn't enough to draw in younger voters and untapped demographics? Head to TV land. That's what this year's presidential candidates are doing. Between appearances (and hosting gigs) on Saturday Night Live, interviews on late night talk shows, and cameos on scripted programming, current presidential candidates are doing everything in their power to reach out to voters-as-viewers.

Last November, when Trump joked that he was hosting Saturday Night Live because he "had nothing better to do," he was actually taking part in a decades-old tradition. SNL is a standard campaign stop. Nearly twenty presidential candidates have appeared there over the years. Not even a year into its airing, SNL featured its first sitting president on the program — Gerald Ford. From then on, the show's love-hate relationship with politics only grew, featuring parodies, impersonations, and cameos over the years. Saturday Night Live has been the go-to over for candidates to connect with new demographics. And although the shtick has often been the same for each — the candidate meets their on-cast doppelganger — it has helped each one appear more human and accessible to voters.

SNL and talk shows have been the standard for decades. Candidates can appeal to the masses on the basis of humanity and humor. But now politicians are getting more creative with their on-air appearances. It isn't enough to be in front of the camera — now they're trying to appear funny and hip to pop culture trends. This year saw Bernie Sanders breaking the SNL mold and acting as someone other than himself in a skit. Hillary Clinton's appearance on Broad City garnered both criticism and praise. Even Ted Cruz's team produced a video of him impersonating Simpsons characters.

It isn't just the real-time viewers the candidates are after. It's the viral factor. If something synergetic happens, then that on-air performance moves across platforms, across state lines, and across demographics, like some kind of magic. As a result, it's becoming less about substance and more about chance and timing.

Hillary is often criticized for trying too hard to appeal to young voters. Truthfully, it's a problem for all of the candidates. Ted Cruz's Simpsons tribute was painful to watch. Trump is incapable of being self-deprecating enough for SNL. Bernie Sanders can't act. That's okay. They're politicians — do we really need them to put on more of a show than they already do?

The issue here isn't just the use of political theater -- that's been around as long as grandstanding and soap boxes. But lately the political has gotten a little too theatrical. We've stopped listening to what the candidates say, and started focusing on how they say it. Supporters focus on Trump's frankness, and his actual platform stops mattering. People are so critical of Clinton's presence that they ignore the message. Bernie claims to be of substance, but his team is quick to capitalize on the magic of the moment to further the cult of support instead of just focusing on building a well-informed base. The candidates are using everything within their power to sell themselves. Scripted television is just part of the equation. It's a shiny new ribbon to tie up their brands.

This isn't a new phenomenon. In 2004 there was the reoccurring question of which presidential candidate would the American people rather have a beer with. In the 1980s, candidates started to provide soundbites to condense their platforms — the average lasting only nine seconds. In 1960, Kennedy faced off against Nixon in the first televised debate ever in the country's history. His charm, charisma, and good looks helped to secure his win in November. Nixon delivered his infamous "Checkers Speech" just eight years prior in 1952 to plead his case to the American people. He was trying to stay on the ticket as vice presidential candidate for Eisenhower's campaign, and television played an integral role in his success. Before TV there was radio and campaign stops.

But with each new use for media in politics, substance declined. The United States descended from talking points to beer buddies in just forty-four short years. And now, instead of determining who you'd rather have a beer with, American voters are scrutinizing their candidates based on their acting chops and comedic timing.

When Bernie Sanders appeared on SNL, acting as an immigrant on a ship to America, his campaign was able to capitalize on the momentum. Although his character parroted many of Sander's own talking points, people focused on the comedic chemistry between him and Larry David. Videos were shared, gifs created, hashtags trended. People were talking about Sanders. These discussions have the potential to build momentum.

Clinton's sophisticated cool approach to being fan-girled on Broad City was likely designed to create the same effect. The candidate became the topic of discussion during interviews with the show runners promoting the new season. Trump's stint hosting SNL created nothing but debate and discussion. The bad publicity further emboldened his base. Even Ted Cruz's uncomfortable Simpsons impersonations got people talking.

It's not a bad thing for politicians to appear more human and accessible on the campaign trail — it likely would have helped Rubio sustain his campaign longer.  But there's a line that's been blurred: between making a candidate more personable to the masses, and evaluating a candidate solely on his or her personality.

Published April 15th, 2016

Aimee Terravechia is a writer, teacher, and grilled cheese connoisseur. She is currently working on her second novel Memes Anonymous . She has written for The Powder RoomScary Mommy, and The Cubic Lane. Her fiction has been published in Apocrypha and Abstractions. When not writing she can be found teaching college composition and creative writing, herding cats, or wrangling her toddler.