Linda McMahon and the Difference Between Wrestling and Politics

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If the polls are to be believed, Republican Linda McMahon is going to lose to Democrat Richard Blumenthal in the Connecticut contest to succeed Chris Dodd in the Senate. Her claim to fame, of course, is that she was the "co-chief executive" with her husband of the company that built the notorious World Wrestling Federation (WWF, which later became the WWE)—it of the steroid scandal, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and "The Rock," among others.

Much to the surprise of some of the commentariat, McMahon's problem seems to be that the men of Connecticut like her but women have been deserting her candidacy in droves—she trails among female voters by almost a 2-1 margin in some polls. But anyone familiar with the WWE understands exactly what's happening. Despite all the criticism of McMahon's experience, the issue isn't that she created a pop culture hit—that's actually a terrific experience for a candidate to have, since it's a process similar to launching and sustaining a successful candidacy. Rather, it's that she fashioned a candidacy without diverse appeal, in contrast to a pop culture figure such as Ronald Reagan, whose movies and Death Valley Days were popular across the board, as was his electoral coalition.

Yes, the WWF was the pop culture phenomenon of the Clinton era and beyond—with a hit weekly TV show and live events that frequently sold out the largest venues in the country, with record pay-per-view ratings to boot. But it has always been a hit skewed to appeal largely to only one gender. Even the WWE's own stats brag about how its website, wwe.com, appeals to an audience that's 61 percent male. Of those, however, 15 percent are under 18 and can't vote and 41 percent more are under 35—the demographic group with one of the worst voting participation rates. What's more, according to blogger Steve Sailer, high school dropouts visit the website 60 percent more than the average web surfer, and they're not particularly good voters either.

McMahon's apparent and predictable failure to build a broad bi-gender coalition is actually obscuring how ingenious her family's creation has been from a pop culture perspective. Of course, wrestling has always been a fixture of television, beginning in the early days of the medium when TV's dependence on a single camera meant that sports that took place in a small space, like a ring, attracted programmers. Figures such as Antonino "Argentino" Rocca, "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, and Bruno Sammartino were the Hulk Hogans of their day.

But McMahon and her husband revolutionized the formula. First, before the McMahons arrived on the scene, just about everyone knew that pro wrestling was fake—even though the organizers seldom, if ever, admitted it. The McMahons let the public in on "the secret" that it was all scripted—an enormous gamble at the time but one which displayed a certain knowing trust in the audience. Their approach was democratic (with a small "d") and populist—the public would know what those in charge always had.

Once the McMahons acknowledged the scripted nature of their enterprise, they could take their second innovative programming step. The contests themselves were secondary to a kind of constant soap opera, with elaborate plots and sub-plots involving all the characters, including husband Vince himself. The result was a kind of camp sports version of Dallas—not everyone's cup of tea to be sure, but one that extensively broadened the traditional audience for "the sport."

Pro wrestling has never been a favored activity of the elite, which in this year, of all years, is an advantage. But in politics, unlike in entertainment, if your demographics skew, you can't win. The McMahons took wrestling out of the sideshows and put it in the main tent. If they fail in politics this time around, it's because they didn't build this particular tent quite big enough. One suspects that having learned that lesson, they will be heard from again.

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Steven Stark has been a cultural commentator for CNN, National Public Radio, and the Voice of America. More

Steven Stark has been a cultural commentator for CNN, National Public Radio, and the Voice of America. He is the author of four books and one e-book and has written frequently for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and both the Boston Globe, where he was an op-ed columnist and the Montreal Gazette, where he was a world sports columnist.
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