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Politicians Make Use of Wrestlers' Hold on Youths

The major parties have gotten into the act as stars of the sport work to boost voter turnout.

August 22, 2004|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Politicians usually rank near the bottom in public approval, down there with government bureaucrats and journalists. But for one battered industry, rubbing shoulders with the political world has actually improved its favorability ratings.

World Wrestling Entertainment, whose hulking, body-slamming, object-hurling superstars perform under names like Triple H, the Rock and Edge, has taken up the cause of voter turnout -- especially for young people.

And the effort is paying off in favorable publicity. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) invited WWE officials to a recent youth summit on Capitol Hill. The University of Virginia is using the group's voter materials in its curriculum for 10,000 teachers involved in this year's Youth Leadership Initiative mock elections.

Even the League of Women Voters, the sweet-faced grandmother of voter outreach, has joined forces with the originators of WrestleMania for the Smackdown Your Vote! drive to turn out 2 million new voters ages 18 to 30, a group with a traditionally low voter turnout.

"Back in 1999, some parental groups were complaining about us, calling us the poster boys for bad behavior, responsible for every manner of cultural degradation and the demise of Western civilization," said Gary Davis, WWE's vice president for corporate communications. "This has given us a different kind of profile, a different perspective on our brand."

League President Kay Maxwell said: "We were intrigued from the beginning because it was a little different for us. We've been working on it for a lot of years, and voter participation continues to decline. This was a good opportunity to reach another audience."

With such mainstream organizations praising the wrestlers' support for getting out the youth vote, WWE is poised to take another step: It plans to announce this week that it is sponsoring a faux presidential debate geared toward youth issues.

The presidential candidates won't be there -- although there may be some references to the similarities between mud-wrestling and presidential politics -- but the candidates' position statements will be discussed by prominent wrestlers and young voters.

Co-sponsoring the debate with the University of Miami in consultation with the Commission on Presidential Debates, WWE will stage the event in Miami on Sept. 29, the evening before President Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry hold their first debate, also in Miami.

For politicians, association with any celebrity who evokes gaga in young fans is always an advantage, especially in an election year. Like other celebrity endorsements, the presence of wrestlers like the Hurricane adds glitter to an otherwise drab landscape.

Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) attended a Smackdown Your Vote! event at the National Press Club last year and mixed it up with Kurt Angle, a WWE superstar who won a gold medal in wrestling at the 1996 Olympic Games. Angle is given to modest declarations that he is the best.

Brian Walsh, Ney's press secretary, sent a digital photo of the matchup to newspapers in Ohio.

"A lot of newspapers in the district wouldn't ordinarily use our photographs, but they did this one," Walsh said.

Beyond the glitter dividend, political figures see the wrestlers as having strong appeal to young voters, a bond that might conceivably increase participation among the least-voting cohort in the nation. This connection is especially crucial in a tight election, but the stay-at-home instincts of young voters have resisted all efforts to get them to the polls since 18-year-olds got the vote in 1972.

That year, 49% of voters ages 18 to 24 cast ballots for president, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. It turned out to be their high-water mark: The youth vote has trended downward ever since.

Fewer and fewer Americans of all ages have been voting, but the pattern has been especially striking in young people.

Pelosi was sufficiently keyed to the falloff in youth voting that she started a caucus for thirtysomething congressmen, a dozen members of Congress who address students and other young audiences. In April, she sponsored a Next Generation Democratic Summit that attracted 250 people -- and two wrestlers, Chris Nowinski and Victoria, who urged young people to get involved and to vote.

Victoria posed in a fake headlock with the minority leader. Nowinski caught the political bug.

"This is an incredible opportunity to motivate people," said Nowinski, who used to parade in the ring as Chris Harvard (he's a graduate of the university, class of 2000, and played on its football team) but whose career is on hold as he recovers from multiple concussions.

"In the ring I'm an arrogant Harvard jerk who's always putting people down," he said, confessing that his brush with politics has the Illinois native weighing a run for office.

"Here, my performing is to get young people inspired," he said.

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