John Kerry and George Bush are stumping hard for your vote. But so are Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, Bruce Springsteen and Toby Keith, Al Franken and Ann Coulter.
Who are you going to listen to?
"Bruce Springsteen and these artists and filmmakers in some ways have much more credibility and experience talking to the American people than politicians do," says Eli Pariser, executive director of the left-leaning activist group, MoveOn PAC. "So I think having them step forward makes people pay attention in a way that is critical in an election where so much is at stake and which is so hotly contested."
Call it politics in the age of product placement: You may want to Tivo out the candidates' political ads, but the same messages could be embedded in the movie you're watching, the book you're reading, or the music or radio program you're listening to.
"People who look at the campaign as just what the candidates say and so forth are really missing a large part of the campaign," says James E. Campbell, a political science professor at the University at Buffalo of the State University of New York who has written about the effectiveness of campaigning.
Increasingly, groups and individuals are running parallel presidential campaigns beyond the bandwidth of the official campaigns, political scientists say. So even as Bush and Kerry deliver their messages to limited audiences on television and at campaign stops, groups such as MoveOn are broadening the scope of the presidential race into more mainstream areas such as movies, music, theater and radio.
MoveOn played a promotional role as Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, set records at the box office, and music stars like Bruce Springsteen denounced the president's policies.
"Usually, in the last 20 or so years, you would have quickie biographies of candidates, or quickie position books … but that's usually all you had before the election," says Dennis W. Johnson, associate dean of George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. "This is really unprecedented, to have Michael Moore-type documentaries and also to have political books coming out at this time of the campaign."
Even some conservatives sound a bit impressed.
"To get your message out in movies like Fahrenheit 9/11 and TV shows like The West Wing is pretty smart for the liberals," says Stephen Moore, president of the conservative group Club for Growth. "There have been people who've said, 'Gee, what Club for Growth should do is finance a movie.' … It's something we won't be able to do in this election cycle because there's [little more than] eight weeks to go."
‘Have They Made an Impact?’
For now, Moore says Club for Growth feels more comfortable sticking with the tried and true — raising funds and running television commercials.
"For all of the news attention that groups like [MoveOn] have gotten, for all the money they've spent, have they made an impact?" he asks. "I don't know."
MoveOn and other independent groups also do TV ads. And the method's continued effectiveness may be shown by weeks of controversy over ads by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth questioning Kerry's military record.
Political scientists also are uncertain whether the heightened activism will work. Many wonder whether people will be driven to the polls, react with a backlash, or just tune out the politics and enjoy the tunes.
They have a hard time predicting because they don't see many precedents in recent elections. Even in publishing, where political books have a long tradition, experts find it hard to recall when the amount of books and sales were so high.
"People have had to go all the way back to Watergate when I've asked them," says Charlotte Abbott, book news editor for Publisher's Weekly. "We're looking at a benchmark period here for political books. … The general sense of the industry is there's a dialogue going on in the country right now, a very vociferous one, and that's very good for books."
Thomas Patterson, a professor of government and the press at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government who has written about the media's impact on presidential elections, looks farther back for this level of political activism in the media — to the Vietnam-charged heyday of Laugh In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. That era's activists had an impact, but their message differed.
"There was lots of stuff like this floating around [in the 1960s], but the target was not really one party or the other, but the political establishment," Patterson says. "A lot of the music was very anti-establishment. It was just flat-out, poke-'em-in-the-eye stuff."
Now, Patterson adds, President Bush and the Iraq war seem to be the target of activist performers, just as President Clinton once was.
"[Conservative talk radio star Rush] Limbaugh didn't really start to get his numbers until he could really day after day go after Bill Clinton," Patterson says. "The Republican win in 2000 … then gave an opportunity for Democrats. And I think it always resonates better with the public when you're hitting at those in power."
The conservative titans from prior campaigns remain active: Fox News Channel outpaces its competitors. And Limbaugh and fellow conservative Sean Hannity remain the most-listened-to talk radio hosts, according to Talkers magazine. Smaller but significant audiences tune in to liberal hosts, including Al Franken and his cohorts on the new radio network Air America.
The conservative-liberal dynamic also fuels book publishing, where Bob Wietrak, vice president of merchandising for Barnes & Noble Inc., believes the hotly contested presidential election of 2000, the terror attacks Sept. 11, 2001, and rapid media cycles have helped make this a landmark election cycle for political books.
Wietrak sees a roughly even split between liberal and conservative books, though Democrat-leaning titles — including My Life by Bill Clinton, Bushworld by Maureen Dowd, Losing America by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and What's the Matter With Kansas? by Thomas Frank — currently outnumber Republican-leaning ones — such as Unfit for Command by John E. O'Neill and Jerome R. Corsi, and Michael Moore Is a Big Fat Stupid White Man by David T. Hardy and Jason Clarke — on the New York Times' non-fiction bestseller lists.
The current imbalance may reflect the cyclical dynamics of the publishing business, where liberal, conservative or more analytical political books succeed in waves, observers say. Conservative iconoclasts such as Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have surged in the past, they say, before liberal counterparts found big success with similar formats. Sept. 11, 2001, seemed to prompt conservative books, says Abbott of Publisher's Weekly, and then the Democratic primary season seemed to boost liberals.
‘Not Necessarily Political Zealots’
However, many are not sure whether overtly political personalities will have much effect on the Bush-Kerry election. Conventional wisdom says they "preach to the choir" because their ideological messages often attract politically active fans who already agree with them. After all, Bill Clinton twice won the presidency even as Limbaugh and others bashed him, Talkers publisher Michael Harrison notes.
But could it be different for traditionally non-political entertainers, such as Springsteen and the shock jock Howard Stern, who is heavily campaigning on the air for Bush's defeat? Some think it may.
"The people who listen to Stern are people who are not necessarily political zealots," Harrison says.
Though Springsteen may have grabbed the biggest headlines, he is not the first musician to speak out on the upcoming election or the merits of the war in Iraq.
A handful of country music stars, though perhaps not explicitly endorsing Bush, have released hawkish songs about U.S. military action, such as Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)."
The anti-Bush musical forces may be more vocal. Hip-hoppers have participated in minority voter-registration efforts, and punk rock acts have put out anti-Bush compilations out under the title, Rock Against Bush. Other big-name rockers will appear on a fund-raising compilation for progressive causes, Future Soundtrack for America.
In October, just before Election Day, Springsteen will be among more than 20 musical acts — including the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks and John Mellencamp — who will simultaneously tour presidential battleground states in MoveOn PAC's "Vote for Change" get-out-the-vote campaign.
Another well-known musician, Steve Earle, has an album featuring critical songs about Bush and Iraq, and told ABC News' Nightline it is an artist's job to sing about politics and opinions.
"We're citizens that communicate," he said. "That's what we do. The idea that artists are unqualified to comment on the society they live in is a relatively new idea that as far as I know, was invented by right-wing talk radio and this administration. I've always thought that was my job."
Just as Springsteen is not the only newly political rocker, the anti-Bush Fahrenheit 9/11 is not the only politicized documentary, though it is by far most successful one.
Moore's film has been attacked over alleged inaccuracies, some of which may be outlined in Michael Moore Hates America, a forthcoming documentary film.
There also have been other liberal-oriented documentaries, such as the MoveOn-financed Outfoxed, critical of the Fox News Channel, and The Hunting of the President, decrying the Clinton impeachment. Still expected is a documentary on John Kerry by George Butler, best known for the 1977 hit, Pumping Iron.
Some cite anti-conservative political messages in mainstream films such as the box office hits The Manchurian Candidate and The Day After Tomorrow. And this fall, Team America: World Police will satirize Bush foreign policy, while Silver City may echo elements of Bush's background as the black-sheep son of a political family runs for governor.
But excluding the success of Fahrenheit 9/11, do enough people care? Johnson of George Washington University, a former Democratic political consultant, says of the Kerry documentary, "I won't even go see it, and I'm a professor who writes about this stuff."
Some prefer to hope otherwise.
"I think the most important part of it is when you talk about the 50 percent of Americans who aren't planning on voting," says Pariser of MoveOn PAC. "That's a huge number of people who normally are ignored by political strategists. But if you can get their attention and get them to vote for Kerry, the political ramifications of that are quite large."
ABC News' Michel Martin and ABC News' Nightline contributed to this report.