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Pop culture saturates US presidential race
Updated: 2004-11-02 19:53

Bruce Springsteen may be The Boss of rock 'n' roll but he's not the boss of Kevin Allen's vote this Tuesday.

"Just because Bruce Springsteen thinks one way, it doesn't mean I should think that way," said Allen, 25, of Farmerville, a junior at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston. "I think it is nice that he feels strongly of what he believes in to use his talent to promote it, but I don't understand why he's doing it.

"Why not do it for world peace? Why do it for just one candidate?"

Blue-collar rocker Springsteen led an anti-Bush "Vote for Change" concert tour through election battleground states. And he's just one example of how popular culture has become so much a part of Campaign 2004.

When Democratic contender John Kerry described a gathering of musicians and actors who had bashed President Bush -- sometimes profanely -- as representing the "heart and soul" of the nation, it intensified a pop culture war that has infused the campaign almost since Day One.

Republicans struck back quickly, labeling comedians Whoopi Goldberg and Chevy Chase -- who had headlined the fund-raiser for Kerry -- as out-of-touch elitists with nothing more insightful to say than debasing humor or raw profanity.

Popular culture has imbued this election in unprecedented ways. Why? The culture has rapidly balkanized into niche audiences, specialty cable channels and proliferating interest groups -- a bird watchers' group recently came out for Kerry. To communicate with people politically, you must crash the niches. That's why Bush or Kerry show up on Live with Regis and Kelly, or sit down with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's Daily Show, but don't appear on Face the Nation.

Republicans countered Springsteen's "Vote for Change" tour by sending an 18-wheeler called "Reggie the Registration Rig" to NASCAR races and state fairs. The GOP says such efforts helped register more than 3 million new voters.

And the day after the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, pitcher Curt Schilling urged Americans to vote for Bush during an interview on Good Morning, America.

Some think the celebrity trend has engaged younger voters especially. One recent report estimated that 30 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 30 registered within the last six months.

But will the cultural images lead to more voting?

Jill Rowlett, 20, of Shreveport said talk shows such as Daily Show get people interested in the election "because it's not so serious. It's comedy. They are actually hitting on real issues."

Yet Rowlett, a Louisiana Tech junior, said celebrities pushing one candidate or another can be a turnoff.

"As much as I like (musician) Dave Matthews, it annoys me that he knows he can use his influence to persuade people. Politics shouldn't be handled by celebrities and artists. Their job is to entertain," Rowlett said.

Rindy Metcalf, 20, of Bossier City said the message from celebrities is simply to get out and vote.

"They are aiming toward our age group, trying to get us out to the polls. I don't really feel like I'm informed because there are so many commercials and news reports. I'm so confused about who's really going for what I am for," Metcalf, also a Tech junior, said.

Metcalf added: "I don't think other people should infringe on other people's right to choose. I think celebrities are reaching more people who think like them. They haven't reached me, though. They haven't pressured me."

As the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that friends and family had an impact on the views of 53 percent of its respondents. Religious leaders' views affected 33 percent but Hollywood stars affected only 7 percent.

Pew Director Andrew Kohut said that if entertainers have an impact on 2004, "it will help the Democrats because a lot of this is pro-Democrat, pro-Kerry." But he said that impact would pale compared with direct contacts from friends, families or campaigns.

And when it comes to those contacts, Republicans are more than holding their own. Pew's Oct. 15-19 poll found that 7 percent of respondents had been contacted by Republican campaigns, 6 percent by Democrats and 7 percent by both sides.

"I don't know that I fully understand the impact of Hollywood stars telling people who to vote for," said Nicolle Devenish, communications director for Bush's campaign. "It certainly is not a strategy we have relied on."

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