Thirty-one-year-old Jin Chon is obsessed with television talk shows. He starts each weekday morning with Barbara and the gang on "The View" and rarely misses his daily dose of Ellen and Tyra. Other favorites: "Entertainment Tonight" and "Access Hollywood," where he luxuriates in the latest gossip. For Chon, there are few things more rewarding than flipping on one of his must-see shows and finding they've booked his favorite celebrity guest: Hillary Clinton. That happens a lot. In the past year, she has been a repeat guest on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," swooned over "Grey's Anatomy" star Patrick (McDreamy) Dempsey on "ET" and copped to a weakness for "Dancing With the Stars" on "Access." The way Chon sees it, there's no such thing as too much Hillary. "She has a great sense of humor and is totally engaging and willing to do fun things that you'd be, like, 'Oh, no, she wouldn't do that!' " he says.
So right about now is when you'd be thinking: "Dude, honestly. Get a job." He's got one. Impressive title, too. Chon is press secretary for specialty media for the Clinton campaign. He's the man behind the dozens of fluff TV appearances Hillary has made. He also angles to get her positive coverage in celeb mags like People and Us Weekly, where she sat for a lighthearted feature in which she made fun of her dowdy wardrobe.
Barack Obama and John McCain are also hustling spots on shows that usually stay clear of politics. Obama danced with DeGeneres, hugged the weak-kneed hosts of "The View" and let slip this bit of news on "Good Morning America": he's going to get a dog. McCain schmoozed with Regis and Kelly and won a write-up in Us when Heidi Montag, the villainess from the MTV reality show "The Hills," endorsed him. (McCain said he was "honored.")
Politicians and presidential candidates have long submitted to ritual humiliation on "Saturday Night Live," and happily take their lumps from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But that's different. Those shows are for the tiny portion of the populace heavy into politics. An appearance on "The Daily Show" is a badge of coolness in this self-conscious, New York-Washington media world: you have arrived.
An appearance on "Access Hollywood"? Not so much. And that's just the point. In a campaign where "elitist" has become a choice slur, the candidates are especially eager to win down-home credibility with this year's "It" demographic: "low-information voters." They are the opposite of Colbert's media-saturated, post-ironic followers. Overwhelmingly white and working class, low-info voters don't pay much mind to the hourly back-and-forth of the campaign, and don't obsessively check Google News for the latest poll results.
Most important to the candidates: many of these voters are, in campaign parlance, "swayable"—undecided and looking for a candidate to believe in. "People who most like [prime-time] entertainment programming don't strongly identify with being a conservative or liberal," says Marty Kaplan, director of the Lear Center on entertainment at the University of Southern California. They base their votes in part on the issues, but just as much—if not more—on how well they like the candidate.
That, by the way, describes most of us, no matter how high-minded we think we are in picking a president. Pollster and political scientist Samuel Popkin coined the phrase "low information" in 1991; he called it "low-information signaling"—the way seemingly trivial details have a big impact on political choices. Never mind the issues: the way you felt when you saw Hillary's perfectly timed near-tears or heard Obama's "bitter" line may be a better indication of how you vote in November.
Little wonder, then, that Clinton, McCain and Obama are spending so much time trying to signal how normal and Just Like Us they are in their quest to become the most powerful person in the world. To do that, the candidates are going lowbrow like never before.
Planning a trip? Take these travel tips from Clinton, courtesy of an interview she did with "Extra" last November: "You got to have layers of clothing," she advised. "You should also have a lot of water and some healthy snacks." Usually guarded with reporters, Clinton felt at ease enough to reveal that "given the variety of situations I find myself in every single day, pantsuits are a lifesaver." Feeling down about your do? Don't worry. So is the maybe-still-possible next U.S. president! Two days before the New Hampshire primary, "Access" aired a wide-ranging interview with Clinton in which she talked about how her girlfriends tease her because "I am, you know, hopeless when it comes to doing my own hair."
Here's a bit of "low-information signaling" that could definitely alter your opinion of Obama: he admitted he once thought Cher was "pretty hot." He said this in a February interview with People and yet still seems poised to win the Democratic nomination. Why didn't Clinton raise this in any of the debates?
It's easy—and fun—to lampoon snippets of these chats (the People interview touched on Iraq and health care—and even on the tabloid shows, the candidates often try to steer the conversation toward substance). But the candidates aren't looking to break news or debate policy proposals. "It's not the same audience that watches the Lehrer 'NewsHour' or reads Hotline or lives inside the Beltway," says Clinton spokesman Jay Carson. "In a country of 300 million people, that leaves about 299.5 million to reach out to."
He's got a point. Since Clinton declared for president, Chon estimates she has appeared on "ET" at least a dozen times. Chon points out that the show pulls in more than 7 million viewers a night (Stewart gets about 1.7 million), and that most of them are women, who make up "a huge bloc of our supporters … That was very important."
The candidates calculate that the exposure is worth any loss of dignity they might suffer among the high-minded for going tabloid. And the risks of coming off badly are low. Shows like "ET" and "Extra" generally aren't going to try to catch them in contradictions—or otherwise give them a rough time the way political reporters often do. For the most part, says Chon, "the interviews are positive." (So are reviews from staffers who handle the candidates. "We've worked with far more demanding C-list stars," says Us editor Janice Min.)
Rob Silverstein, executive producer for "Access," says people misunderstand his show's approach to politics: "It's not a matter of softball [questions]; that's absurd. Brian Williams isn't going to ask about their hair coloring. We will, because that's what our audience is interested in." Silverstein says there's value in getting politicians to open up about something other than politics. "If we can get them talking about themselves and being self-deprecating," he says, "you're seeing a different side of these people that you don't normally see."
That's what happened when Clinton appeared on "The Tyra Banks Show" in January and was surprisingly candid about her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky. "I really had to dig down deep and think hard about what was right for me, what was right for my family," she said. "I never doubted Bill's love for me, ever … You're mad, you're really upset, you're disappointed."
Compared with Obama and Clinton, McCain has logged less time on the tabloid circuit, perhaps because he wrapped up the nomination early and hasn't had to pander as hard. His one appearance with DeGeneres, which the campaign hoped would be light and funny, turned uncomfortable when the host, who is gay, grilled him about his opposition to gay marriage.
Yet McCain seems to relish the absurdity of some of the stunts he's required to perform. In April, Obama and Clinton were a bit stiff reciting their lines on videos for World Wrestling Entertainment fans in South Carolina: "Hi, I'm Hillary Clinton. But tonight, in honor of the WWE, you can call me Hillrod." Obama gamely attempted to riff off The Rock's signature line: "Do you smell what Barack is cooking?" But McCain seemed positively delighted to be there. "Whatcha gonna do when John McCain and all his McCainiacs run wild on ya?" he asked. He even snuck in a bit of policy talk: "I'm gonna introduce Osama bin Laden to the Undertaker."
For better or worse, it's moments like these that get many people to tune in to the campaign. "I do think people feel badly that they can't tell you more about the economy, foreign policy, Iraq, who their representatives are," says Harvey Levin, executive producer of TMZ.com, a celeb-obsession Web site that is covering the candidates the same way it does movie stars. "They probably wish they could … but it's just so damn boring for them." Levin says sites like TMZ—which reported that Obama left an $18 tip on a $2 Pabst Blue Ribbon—demystify politicians and, ultimately, politics. "It's baby steps," he says. "If you can get people interested in the players, it's a step toward getting them interested in what the players do."