The Real-World Politics of 'American Idol'

Bush vs. Gore, Nixon vs. Kennedy, and now Hicks vs. McPhee.

Less than 1 percentage point -- just 100,000 votes -- determined which two contestants made it to the final of "American Idol," and whether Katharine McPhee or Taylor Hicks finish on top next week won't come down to mere talent, say some political analysts.

"I think 'American Idol' is very political," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist.

The other side of the political aisle agrees. "'American Idol' is democracy in progress," said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway.

Voting is part of the process; more than a third of the American people think their vote counts as much or more for "American Idol" than it does for the presidency, according to a recent poll by Pursuant, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based polling firm. The same poll concluded that roughly half of the American people had watched "American Idol" and one in 10 had voted for a competitor.

So for contestants, the political gimmicks start early.

"One of the first things they do is when someone is kicked off, there's now a scramble to get to the front to show the camera they're also crying at the same time," said "Idol" judge Simon Cowell.

Singers use a number of vote-lobbying techniques on the show -- appealing to patriotism, appearing with politicians -- even kissing babies.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley stood with Hicks at the governor's mansion in Montgomery on Friday. "I want to encourage all citizens to support and watch Taylor Hicks on 'American Idol' and vote for him after his performance," Riley said.

McPhee spent time with her family, holding her new godchild and kissing his tiny head for the cameras.

"Just like in American politics, when they go back to their hometowns they're trying to project an image to the rest of America that they are compassionate, they're folksy, they're real, they didn't plop down from Mars," Conway said.

Hicks, an Alabama native, is not unlike another gray-haired Southerner.

"Taylor definitely has some Clinton tactics to him, and one is bringing the crowd in with him," Backus said.

Between Clinton's "bridge to the 21st century," and Hicks' battle cry of "Soul Patrol," both men know how to stay on the message. The pair also share geographical advantages. No president has won without a Southerner on the ticket in more than 30 years. That Southern bias runs rampant on "Idol" too. The four previous champs all hail from Dixie -- good news for Hicks, but not for California girl McPhee.

"I don't get the small-town support, but I definitely have gotten overwhelming support from the actual city that I'm from," McPhee said on Tuesday's show.

The gender gap could play a role in deciding the next "American Idol."

"The best shot Katharine has is having men vote for her," Conway said.

But Backus said it's important that the winner broadens one's base, a lesson learned the hard way by fan favorite Chris Daughtry when he was voted off last week.

"Chris was sort of the Howard Dean candidate," Backus said. "He couldn't broaden his appeal past the young, modern hip sound."

In the New York Post, conservative op-ed writer John Podhoretz wrote that the "winnowing process allows the most appealing candidates to pick up steam by adding new voters to their cadre of supporters. And as they do so, the field continues to be winnowed, until finally there are only one or two candidates left standing. The single-issue candidate, the flash-in-the-pan, the guy who has one fantastic debate -- they may all have their moments, but in the end, the candidate with the most broad-based appeal will usually win."

Podhoretz, it should be noted, also predicted that "according to the logic of coalition-building that is at the heart of both American politics and Fox's pop-culture phenomenon, Elliot Yamin will be the next 'American Idol.'"

In the end, endorsements, of course, are also critical.

"It's all about Simon Cowell," Conway said. "He represents the ultimate swing voter. As goes Simon, so goes the electorate."

Kendall Evans and Ari Meltzer contributed to this report.