How 'American Idol' Paved the Way for Barack Obama

Television voting may hold some important lessons about increasing voter participation.

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The ninth season of FOX’s juggernaut American Idol kicks off this week, promising the usual scary auditions, overwrought singing, acerbic critiques from Simon Cowell—and, of course, those spine-chilling moments when a rare talent makes the whole mess worthwhile. American Idol ushered in a new phenomenon in 21st-century network television: Prime-time, reality, talent contests, in which viewers vote for, and ultimately select, the winner in a three-month national election.

American Idol, which at its peak averaged 30 million viewers each week, also helped to usher in another phenomenon. With its easy-access voting process, it became the electoral training ground for millions of young people who turned 18 in time to vote in last year’s history-making presidential election.

In fact, the success of Obama’s groundbreaking presidential campaign among young voters is in part attributable to his campaign’s effective use of electoral tools that young television voters have come to expect from Idol and its progeny Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.

That Idol should be examined as a voting rights phenomenon seems obvious. In the final four weeks of the show each season, more than 32 million votes are cast. For the 2007 finale of the show, 97.5 million votes were cast. Even accounting for multiple voting, this means that millions of viewers–many of them young people—cast votes in Idol elections. In a country plagued by low voter turnout in political contests, we shouldn’t ignore such staggeringly high electoral participation numbers—even for pop singers.

Of course, Idol voting in a talent contest is different in important ways from voting for political leaders. But television voting may hold some important lessons in increasing voter participation in political contests. For example, Idol gives voters the chance to vote in a way that is most convenient (wherever the voter has phone access), using technology with which young people are most comfortable (telephone calls and text messages). It turns out that “convenience” is an important determinant in whether young people vote in political elections. One-quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds who didn’t vote in the 2004 presidential election reported that they didn’t vote because they were “too busy” or had “conflicting schedules” with poll hours. As one 19-year-old man with two jobs and a pregnant girlfriend explained, “I should have voted, but I got a lot to do.” Election Day voting, which may seem like an important communal “moment” for Baby Boomers and media outlets, is just a drag for many young people.

Idol voting also allows voters to vote with passion and intensity for their preferred candidate. Obviously, in political elections, voters can’t do the multiple-voting thing for candidates they fear may be “in trouble.” Nor does it make sense for them to strategically withhold votes Idol-style for candidates they deem to be “safe.” But the enthusiasm with which Idol fans vote was reflected in the high turnout of young people in last year’s presidential election.

Then, too, the show also helped prepare young voters in navigating contentious political battles where race plays front and center. Consider the talent-heavy 2004 season of the show, which was fraught with racial tension. That was the year when three phenomenal African-American singers—Jennifer Hudson, LaToya London and Fantasia Barrino—consistently wound up as the bottom-three vote-getters, despite giving amazing vocal performances. Elton John, a guest judge on the show, called the public’s lack of support for the three women “incredibly racist.” As tension mounted after Jennifer Hudson was voted off, host Ryan Seacrest, sounding more than a little nervous, cautioned viewers, “you cannot let talent like this slip through the cracks.” The threat of a full-scale racial implosion on the show seemed to stun fans, and many rallied support for the remaining black contestant, Fantasia Barrino, who later went on to win the show. (Jennifer Hudson, of course, went on to receive an Academy Award for her performance in the film version of Dreamgirls.)

All these elements came into play during President Obama’s 2008 campaign. (Like Idol’s producers, the Obama campaign recognized the importance of convenience to voters. The campaign pushed “early voting” in places like North Carolina—emphasizing convenience to voters over the single Election Day communal voting experience that many older voters cherish. The campaign used the Internet to offer voters an opportunity to build a relationship with the candidate, allowing supporters to contribute $10 or $20 to the campaign multiple times, just as the weekly voting on Idol builds support for candidates. Idol-trained voters, accustomed to the continuous communication ushered in by cell phones, and the weekly exposure to their favorite “candidates,” were treated to regular, sometimes daily e-mails from candidate Obama and his team, with updates, messages and renewed solicitations for support. The Obama campaign even embraced text messaging—using a mass text to announce that Sen. Joe Biden would be the vice-presidential running mate.

President Obama’s brilliant campaign owes much to the charisma and vision of the candidate himself, and the brilliance of the team he assembled. But American Idol and other TV voting shows have cemented voting as a pop-culture exercise for millions of young Americans. Many features of the Obama campaign replicated for young voters the sense of personal connection with the candidate, electoral convenience and the interactivity that voters had come to expect from Idol. Idol has become this country’s yearly spring ritual—a ritual that shapes how millions of young Americans learn to vote.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root. Her essay, From Idol to Obama: What TV Elections Teach Us About Race, Youth and Voting, appears in the recently released anthology Barack Obama and African American Empowerment (Palgrave Macmillan 2009).

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