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Is It Hip? Of Presidential Candidates and Rock'n'Roll

BY Alan Rosenblatt | Friday, March 28 2008

Weighing in at not quite 2 tons of fun, the McCain Girls are tearing up the YouTube charts and shattering a whole lot of eardrums. Are they hip? Do they make John McCain hip? The jury is still out on that.

And while the McCain Girls have racked up more than a half million views in just one week, they are still a good bit shy of the total number times people have watched John McCain sing that old Beach Boy's ditty. Combining the various clips and mash-ups of the ol' hipster singing "Bomb Iran," McCain has been viewed at least 5 million times. More than 1.1 million of those views were of his unedited clip. For my money, though, I prefer Mike Gravel's remake of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" to McCain's surf band homage:

We all know Obama is hip (not an endorsement, just a fashion statement). His "Yes We Can" video by will.i.am is super slick and has been viewed at least 9 million times. Even Obama's Yes We Can speeches have been viewed millions of times, not to mention his speech on race, which has more than 4 million views already. But while McCain is singing an old "rock" song, only Obama is being called a rock star in this race (well, now that Mile Huckabee has dropped out of the race... I just loved the picture of him walking across the wet tarmac carrying his bass, his wife alongside. It was sooooo Beatle-esque).

Now nothing creates rock star status like having scantily clad women sing their secret desires for a candidate. And we all remember the big splash Obama Girl made early in the campaign. And while its creators, BarelyPolitical have not made much of a splash lately, they have rained their glamour down on several candidates, and even President Bush. Contrast Obama's rock star image with this video in support of Hillary Clinton from Hillary4uandme:

For those of you old enough to remember, does this video feel like an Up with People concert? Hmmmm... apparently Up with People still exists. All I can say about them is that they are anything but Rock'n'Roll.

But does a Presidential candidate need to be a rocker? Some would say rock'n'roll is beneath the dignity of the presidency. Then again, the election of Bill Clinton, with his saxophone and love of Fleetwood Mac, ushered in the resurgent classic rock radio phenomenon (perhaps setting back the new music market by eight years in the process). Baby boomers are starting to retire. That means even the oldest of them were in their late-teens/ early-twenties at the birth of of the hippy shake thang. Even John McCain is young enough to have a taste for rock.

This suggests that a candidate with a hipster edge does not live beneath the stature of the presidency. No, that edge has long been a part of the mainstream... think about it... Rock'n'Roll has a Hall of Fame. If that doesn't signal its shift from subversive to mainstream, I don't know what would.

And with the huge surge in young voter turnout, as much as quadruple past rates in some states, it appears that being a rock star has an electoral payoff, at least so far. So bring on the edge and wipe away the vanilla (boy it pains me to say that... I love vanilla ice cream and soda). If this election has told us anything, it is that candidates that reach out to new voters using YouTube and other new media channels, are changing the shape of the electorate.

Changing the shape of the electorate... I have long argued that the median voter model developed during the early days of rock'n'roll by Anthony Downs (An Economic Theory of Democracy, 1957) does not require that candidates move to the center to win elections. It is true that the candidate closest to the median voter is most likely to win, as Downs argues. But reaching out to new voters in the long tail of the electorate will increase turnout and pull the median towards the candidate, eliminating the need to pander to the center. The location of the median voter with a 55% turnout is not the same as the location of the median if a candidate can pull another 10% of eligible voters from the left (or right) out to the polls.

Given the landscape of the remaining candidates, the most likely source of new voters is from the left. Aside from the fact that Karl Rove and company fished extensively among right voters in 2004 to boost their high turnout rates even higher, none of these candidates is singing the right's siren song. And one is singing a song that has strong appeal to young, left voters.

So bring on the edge. Energize new voters. Make them feel that this election is about them and they will turn out and vote. Long live rock!