- - Sunday, September 2, 2018

MTV supercharged the Rock the Vote movement years before Hollywood joined the resistance to President Trump.

The erstwhile music channel wants to do it again with +1thevote, a campaign to increase millennial turnout for the Nov. 6 midterm elections by leveraging social networks.

Kevin Howley, professor of media studies at DePauw University, credits MTV for using all the platforms at its disposal, including social media and grassroots activism, to invigorate its get-out-the-vote effort.

“This isn’t your father’s Rock the Vote campaign,” Mr. Howley said.

The effort also can help burnish its network’s brand. These days, you would be hard-pressed to find much music on MTV. The station long ago gave way to reality show fare and other programming. The “M” in MTV may be mothballed, but the network’s ratings have been creeping back in recent years. Mr. Howley suggests a hip voting push can only help.

“MTV may gauge its effectiveness less as a matter of increasing voter turnout than riding a wave of young people’s political engagement to build its audience and enhance its brand,” Mr. Howley said.

He also points to global youth activism centered on student debt relief, gun control and similar hot-button issues. Young, disillusioned viewers may be primed to vote with the network’s blessing.

“MTV aims to mend a broken system and promote its brand in the bargain. That’s a win-win,” he said.

MTV debuted +1thevote during its Video Music Awards show on Aug. 20. The annual event drew snickers for Madonna’s egocentric tribute to the late Aretha Franklin and its weak ratings, the lowest in the event’s history. The awards show drew a 2.2 rating among adults ages 18-49, a key demographic that the network craved for its voting campaign.

The latter confirms the network’s inability to replicate the buzz it garnered in its first two decades of existence, said Justin Haskins, executive editor and research fellow at the right-leaning Heartland Institute in Chicago. Mr. Haskins said MTV’s waning clout isn’t all the network’s fault.

“People are moving online. … The heaviest influencers are found online and social,” Mr. Haskins said.

That doesn’t mean the network can’t change a few hearts and minds on Election Day. The official +1thevote website keeps the language bipartisan in nature, but Mr. Haskins said it isn’t so simple.

For starters, MTV routinely shares its political biases. The VMAs, the channel’s signature event, included several presidential taunts in the monologue as well as an extended sequence slamming Republican immigration policies, including measures that presumably separate illegal immigrant parents from their children. The rapper Logic hit the stage wearing a “F– the Wall” T-shirt.

The official MTV Twitter account also occasionally pushes for more left-leaning causes, such as comprehensive gun control legislation. The account repeatedly endorsed the March for Our Lives movement, sparked after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The millennial-friendly voting push arrives with an implied bias, Mr. Haskins said.

“The left knows that if they can just get younger people out to vote, which they’ve been wildly ineffective in doing, they have a better chance to win elections,” he said. “It’s a pure numbers game.”

Rock the Vote became synonymous with MTV in the early 1990s, but the campaign began with music executives fighting forces eager to censor hip-hop music. MTV proved a fertile partner, given its cultural cache and music-heavy format.

The mission couldn’t stop record labels from adorning new music, but it raised awareness for young voters all the same. The campaign scored other wins as well.

Christopher Huff, an assistant professor of history at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, recalled REM’s aggressive push to promote the Motor Voter Act, including public service announcements and postcards packed into their massive 1991 album “Out of Time” to help the measure.

President Clinton thanked Rock the Vote when he signed the bill into law in 1993. Still, Mr. Huff said, MTV history likely won’t repeat itself.

“The channel does not have the cultural cache and connection to American youth that it did in the early 1990s,” he said. The +1thevote campaign also lacks the rock star connection courtesy of Michael Stipe and his seminal alternative rock quartet.

Another element working against MTV this year involves the nature of midterm elections, Mr. Huff said. The channel’s Rock the Vote measures in 1992 aligned with the battle between President George H.W. Bush and the saxophone stylings of then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

“The 1992 presidential race had all the hallmarks of a generational battle, making it easier to mobilize young voters,” he said. Midterm elections, by contrast, feature a variety of candidates of all ages.

Mr. Haskins said MTV isn’t the only organization hoping to supercharge midterm election turnout. While some conservative outlets like the Media Research Center avoid direct voter outreach, others strive to activate budding conservatives.

He name-checks Young Americans for Liberty and Turning Point USA as actively recruiting conservative-leaning voters for the midterm elections. Neither group could be reached for comment.

That kind of youth-focused pressure “didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago,” Mr. Haskins said.

Rock the Vote-style campaigns may be evolving in the digital age, but Mr. Howley said the latest incarnation is a sign of the Trump times.

“Either way you look at it, this new campaign says something about the state of cultural politics in the Trump era,” Mr. Howley said.

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