Stars, Sex and Gimmickry

Ben Wasserstein is a writer in New York.

Last week, Ashton Kutcher took a break from canoodling with Demi Moore to appear with Sen. John Edwards in Iowa and Minnesota. Each time the “Dude, Where’s My Car?” dude charged President Bush with punking the citizenry, receptive crowds reportedly shouted back, “True dat!”

Meanwhile, Bad Boy rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ understated “Vote or Die!” slogan echoes through the battleground states he’s been touring. “If you talking about flexing your power, and you ain’t flexing in the swing states, then you ain’t flexing your power,” he told Associated Press.

Reluctant voters have nowhere to hide these days, as Bruce Springsteen’s “Vote for Change” tour prods them, the country musicians of “Your Country, Your Vote” spur them and less-heralded acts use every manner of crackpot stunt to wheedle relentlessly.

This summer’s “Just Vote” tour, for example, was powered not by baby-boom rockers but vegetable oil, as Bay Area bands Aphrodesia and Rock Me Pony chased down unregistered slackers in a van fueled by used corn and soybean grease. The Armenian National Committee of America’s pro-John Kerry tour seeks to wring votes from people with names ending in “ian.” In the swing state of New Mexico -- which George W. Bush lost in 2000 by only 366 votes -- caravans of “lowriders” will accompany coveted Latino voters to the polls. And in Florida, transvestites have launched a “Drag Out the Vote” campaign.

Many organizations are exporting people and ideas from solidly red or blue states into those of a less-certain shade. For example, the Downtown for Democracy political action committee, or D4D, is sending hip, young New Yorkers by van to Ohio, disseminating “free designer T-shirts, free drinks, political art and music.” New York magazine summarized the pros and cons of D4D’s approach: “Advantages: Free designer T-shirts, free drinks. Disadvantages: Political art and music.”


Democrats and Republicans kicked more traditional get-out-the-vote efforts into overdrive after the too-close vote of 2000. But if the election is decided by a narrow margin, the media’s post-victory spotlights are not likely to fall on the church, club and union stalwarts who nag door-to-door or by phone bank.

Credit will more likely go to fans of the much-missed TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” who rallied voters and raised money for Kerry at a multi-venue event they called “High Stakes” -- the stake being Buffy’s bloodsucker-killing weapon of choice.

Donald P. Green, director of Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies and coauthor with Alan S. Gerber of “Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout,” says that face-to-face interactions are the key to pumping up poll attendance. “I don’t know that making a spectacle of it gets people to participate,” he said.

Such thinking has not deflated vote wranglers’ enthusiasm for sex and celebrity tactics. Leonardo Di Caprio, who plays billionaire Howard Hughes in an upcoming film, joins Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas in trying to guilt voters to the polls as part of MTV’s “Rock the Vote.” Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ,” is doing the same for the evangelical “Redeem the Vote” effort. Singer Sheryl Crow is fronting for the feminist “Get Our Her Vote.” And P. Diddy and Ted Nugent are getting out votes for, well, the Burger King Corp. -- Slogan: “Have it your way Nov. 2.”

The “Baring Witness” campaign encourages men and women to spell out pro-voting messages with their naked bodies. Strip clubs nationwide have asked patrons to avert their eyes long enough to register. And the group Votergasm encourages people to withhold sex from nonvoters for a week after the election.

When vote encouragement becomes so frenzied, illegal tactics inevitably come to light. And it is inevitable that fingers point to Michael Moore. In a tour of Michigan colleges, the filmmaker offered gifts of clean underwear and ramen noodles in exchange for promises to vote. Because it is illegal to pay people to vote in a federal election, the Michigan GOP urged authorities to take Moore down. A local prosecutor demurred, suggesting her time would be better spent “prosecuting those who are delivering cocaine to our young people rather than underwear.”

Not that a crack-for-votes campaign is out of the question. An Ohio sheriff has reported that an NAACP National Voter Fund worker admitted that she paid a 22-year-old in crack cocaine for the 130 completed voter forms he supplied. Those forms came to the sheriff’s attention because many sported false addresses and the names of Mary Poppins, Brett Favre, Jeffrey Dahmer, Dick Tracy and other people who do not reside in Toledo.

So there it is. By hook or by crook, more voters than usual will probably turn up this year. Harder to gauge: How many were lured by lowriders, how many by lite rockers, how many by lap dancers and, in places like Toledo, how many actually exist.