The cable networks have new competition in their campaign for your election-coverage vote. When asked in August why the president favored People and Entertainment Tonight over the political press, Obama campaign adviser Stephanie Cutter told CNN that pop-culture media is now "equally important." So the networks have turned to a fresh crop of talking heads who operate as one-person polemical brands, as adept at stirring up controversy as they are at analyzing the candidates. Here are the major political pop stars to watch right now.
Host, MSNBC's NOW With Alex Wagner
Trending Now Because: The former editor-in-chief of the music bible The Fader and onetime executive director of George Clooney's Not on Our Watch NGO is equally at home dissecting Kim Jong-un and Kim Kardashian.
Prime-Time Moment: Wagner, who has professed a desire to overturn the Second Amendment, made news the day after last summer's Aurora, Colorado, shootings, when she dedicated an entire show to dissecting the "perfect storm" brewing as a result of lax gun control and America's "culture and celebration of violence."
Host, HuffPost Live
Trending Now Because: Once called "Russia's female Jon Stewart," Minkovski fronted her own D.C.-based show on Russia's state-owned network RT before swapping Vladimir Putin for a boss even more reviled by the GOP: Arianna Huffington.
Prime-Time Moment: Minkovski performed an entire Halloween show in a Glenn Beck costume after he accused her of "stirring up racial tension" for having the leader of the New Black Panther Party as a guest. "Glenn Beck," she declared, "you hate Americans because you lie to them, you scare them, you try to warp their minds."
Guest commentator, CNN
Trending Now Because: The Buzzfeed political reporter and devout Mormon—who got the scoop in February that Marco Rubio was baptized into the Church of Latter-Day Saints—is now being sought out by programs like American Morning and Erin Burnett OutFront as an authoritative voice on Mitt Romney's religion.
Prime-Time Moment: Coppins, who isn't shy about criticizing the history of his faith, informed Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC in April, "Mormon leaders used to teach that black people were less valiant or less righteous in a premortal life."
Trending Now Because: As a frequent guest on Starting Point, the pro-gay-marriage Republican and former contributor to the short-lived shoutfest In the Arena has proved himself a master at stirring up controversy, sparring with Democratic senator Dick Durbin and even host Soledad O'Brien.
Prime-Time Moment: When CNN Newsroom's Don Lemon and guest LZ Granderson—both of whom are gay—laughed at Marcus Bachmann's flamboyant dance moves, Cain took them to task, pointing out that they were "two guys who [had] been through this process."
Guest commentator, MSNBC
Trending Now Because: The self-described postmodern conservative mixes wonky talk with Marilyn Manson lyrics and incites liberal ire with pugnacious Daily Caller posts like "What Are Women For?"
Prime-Time Moment: Soon after "WAWF?," Poulos—a HuffPost Live producer and contributor at Forbes and Vice—gamely appeared on MSNBC's UP With Chris Hayes and said: "We're going to be stuck in this culture-war situation regardless of the ultimate merits of the issue unless we find some way to get through to the other side." Then the Huffington Post hired Poulos as its own Gen-X David Brooks.
Guest commentator, Fox News
Trending Now Because: The comely archconservative reporter parlayed YouTube infamy into guest spots on Hannity, Fox & Friends, and Your World With Neil Cavuto.
Prime-Time Moment: After she received a Good Will Hunting-style dressing-down from Matt Damon (whose mom is a teacher) on education policy, Fields had the last laugh on Alyona Minkovski's RT show: "I think it's great that Matt Damon is passionate about this," she said, "because this is an issue that now is reaching a broader audience." Now she is too.
Cohost, MSNBC's The Cycle
Trending Now Because: A hunting aficionado, Christian-sympathizing atheist, and classically trained ballet dancer, the tireless (and, in the eyes of many, shameless) Cupp made the rounds as a guest commentator on TV talk-fests (Hannity, Morning Joe, Now With Alex Wagner) and authored the 2010 apologia for creationism, Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media's Attack on Christianity, before landing her present cohosting gig in June.
Prime-Time Moment: During a roundtable discussion about Romney's Mormon faith in July, Cupp revealed that she "would never vote for an atheist president." When her cohost, Steve Kornacki, accused her of being a "self-loathing atheist," Cupp responded, "I do not think that someone who represents 5 to 10 percent of the population should be representing [the country] and thinking that everyone else in the world is crazy but me."
Editor-in-chief, Reason TV
Trending Now Because: The former Teen Machine magazine writer turned libertarian journalist and frequent cable-talk-show guest is famous for blasting liberals like Rachel Maddow for dismissing Obama's "Fast and Furious" gun scandal as a "conspiracy theory" and rankling conservatives with his pro-gay-rights position.
Prime-Time Moment: When Gillespie took Maddow to task for F&F on Real Time With Bill Maher, the MSNBC anchor blurted, "Listen, dude, I'm not even a Democrat!" Gillespie responded, "You will always take the side of a Democrat over a Republican."
Fernando Del Rincón
Anchor, CNN en Espanol's prime-time newscast Panorama Mundial
Trending Now Because: Once a tabloid fixture for marrying—and shortly thereafter divorcing amid scandalous accusations of physical abuse (he denied the accusations)—his coanchor, Carmen Domicci, on Univision's then popular daily newsmagazine show, Primer Impacto, Del Rincón has risen to become a top political reporter for CNN's fast-growing Spanish-language spin-off.
Prime-Time Moment: When an ad for AshleyMadison.com (the dating site with the slogan "Life is short. Have an affair") appeared on a Mexico City billboard in June featuring a picture of then presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, English-language anchor Kate Bolduan brought in Del Rincon to get the scoop. "Why Peña Nieto?" Bolduan asked. "Did he cheat on his wife?" Del Rincón claimed that the candidate had "hinted about it in several interviews," but as with Del Rincón's own scandal, the incident had no bearing on Peña Nieto's success: Three weeks later, he won the presidency.
Trending Now Because: A maverick after her father's own heart, the oldest child of John McCain began stepping out of the Arizona senator's shadow in 2007 with her campaign-trail blog, McCain Blogette. The independent-minded Republican's star has risen as she wages a lonely war against party orthodoxy, staking out socially progressive positions on everything from birth control to gay marriage in articles for The Daily Beast, her 2010 memoir, Dirty Sexy Politics, and, as of November 2011, regular appearances on MSNBC.
Prime-Time Moment: On Politics Nation in May, McCain inveighed against her critics with a personal plea: "Many people in the Republican party treat me like I'm a freak, like there's something wrong with me and that I'm a mutant . . . The line that is drawn between extreme conservatives and moderates—there's bloodletting going on."
—Stayton Bonner and Laurence Lowe