Obama Can Pick His VP “American Idol-Style”

Published Friday, June 13, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

By the time Barack Obama finally wrested the Democratic party’s nomination for president from Hillary Clinton, it resembled an entire season of “Survivor” more than a conventional political campaign. Now comes the summer lull, filled with nothing but speculation about who Obama will choose as his running mate. So why not continue the network television summer sensation theme and pick a vice president using the methods perfected for “American Idol?”

As CBS learned with “Survivor” (debut: May 31, 2000) and then FOX learned with “American Idol” (debut: June 11, 2002), summer begs for new programming. There’s no reason to believe politics is any different.

Nothing political is currently scheduled until the end of summer, when the national parties have their conventions. How can a candidate keep his ratings up with those people who only recently found themselves tuning in to presidential politics? Reruns won’t do it.

Attention turns now to the “VP sweepstakes,” which could be shortened to “Veepstakes.” We slide immediately from the horse race to the sweepstakes, because there’s no real talent or effort required to win the nomination for vice president. You only need to be chosen. Your number comes up, you’re the winner! That’s how it is with sweepstakes.

People say it doesn’t matter who gets the job and that’s mostly right. But how the choice is made can speak volumes. Exhibit A, Dan Quayle. Exhibit B, Dick Cheney.

Republican John McCain invited his supposed frontrunners to Arizona for a barbecue and slumber party. They ate chicken. No other information was provided.

Obama likewise has begun his selection process, but very little is known beyond that. Speculation on his choice includes the extra wrinkle of what to do about Hillary Clinton? (Short answer: promise her the next seat on the Supreme Court.)

Here’s where Obama can show he means what he says about introducing a new kind of politics. He can rethink how his running mate is vetted and introduced to the American people. He can do it in a way that’s new and different, in a way that will reach out to millions of new voters, in a way that will continue to capture headlines and create enthusiasm throughout the summer.

“American Idol” has become the dominating model of democracy in America, so why not just go with it? Some “American Idol” finalists have garnered more votes than any presidential candidate has ever received, so why not give people what they want, at least for the summer?

Here’s how it would work. Obama and his staff select a handful of viable candidates and introduce them to the public. Each contestant must agree to do two things: campaign for Obama throughout the summer and drop out graciously if they are not chosen. Obama agrees to split his time evenly between them, as each tests their own “Obama and me” story line.

Bill Richardson covers the southwest and Hispanic communities in major cities. Jim Webb visits VFW halls. John Edwards talks up Obama across Appalachia. Sam Nunn helps out in the southeast. Tom Daschle eats corn dogs for Obama at every county fair in the heartland. Michael Bloomberg splits his time between Manhattan media consultants and Jewish retirees in Florida. Add your own favorites and their respective market niches.

Count the benefits for the Obama campaign. He gets a small army of fervent campaigners. Each signs up new voters and new donors, giving the press reportable metrics of their viability. Local news media will follow the story as a mini-horse-race, tracking the size of each candidate’s crowds. Websites will appear endorsing different candidates.

Better than a barbecue, don’t you think?

After the 4th of July, Obama narrows the field to three or four semi-finalists. In early August, he pares it to two. Both finalists are invited to speak at the Democratic convention, and just when all of America has returned from summer vacation and tuned back in for the drama, the winner is announced on the final day of the convention. The chosen vice presidential candidate will enter the fall campaign already having found their voice on the campaign trail.

Can the candidate who promised “change we can believe in” write the next episode before America changes the channel?

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is a marketing, media and management consultant for small and civic-minded companies. He blogs right here.