Election 2008

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Jason DeCrow/AP
Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, talks with host Jon Stewart
during an appearance on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."

Do Late Night Talk Shows Work for the Candidates?

October 14, 2008 07:53 AM
by Liz Colville
Presidential candidates routinely make appearances on late night talk shows, supplementing regular news interviews with spots usually given to celebrities. How much effect do these appearances have on voters?

From Candidate to Celebrity

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Following a historical precedent set by Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have appeared on shows like “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” This reflects the 2004 election, when several candidates made repeat appearances on late night television very early on in the campaign season, making fun of each other and throwing in some pop culture references, presumably to woo younger voters.

In this election season, the appearances again started during the primary season, when Sens. Hillary Clinton, McCain and Obama attempted to differentiate themselves and let loose for voters, appearing on three different talk shows within days of each other: Clinton on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” McCain on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and Obama on the daytime staple “The View.” Mother Jones reviewed the performances, calling the three appearances respectively “desperate-seeming,” “writer-fed” and “awkward,” but admitting each had their funny moments.

Most of the time, the last laugh seems to rest with the talk show hosts themselves: David Letterman’s two-night critique of McCain, following McCain’s cancellation of his appearance on the show in light of the economic crisis, drew more YouTube hits than any of either candidates’ appearances on such shows.

The question is whether jokes—either by the candidates or the hosts—influence voters. Researchers and late night comedians have made the argument that their jokes only “reinforce” what the public already knows. A 2004 study in the Journal of Broadcast Media looked at the 2000 election and drew on comments by hosts, as well previous research. Both Jay Leno and Jon Stewart were referenced, and both suggested that “audience participation” is essential to political jokes’ success.
But if voters are getting their political news chiefly from shows like “The Daily Show,” which many do, according to a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center, both information and jokes are being disseminated to voters by the same host. Lopsided coverage of the candidates, or unbalanced criticism on these shows could also affect voter opinion.

In October, the candidates will be making more appearances in a final attempt to woo voters. Among these, McCain will be making up his cancelled appearance on CBS’s “Letterman” on Thursday, Oct. 16. In the same slot, Sen. Joe Biden will be appearing on NBC’s “Leno.”

Historical Context: Nixon, Clinton set the bar

When President Clinton appeared on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in June of 1992, opening the show with a rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” on his saxophone, he ushered in a new trend for political campaigns. Candidates could be expected, if not required, to appear on late night talk shows. Clinton got a significant boost in the polls after the event; he had been trailing President Bush but went on to win the election.

But this wasn’t the first time a presidential candidate had charmed television audiences: President Nixon’s innocent exclamation, “Sock it to me?” in the eponymous opening segment of “Laugh-In” was a surprise, and may have helped the candidate clinch a victory. The event is “often cited as a watershed moment in the history of television,” wrote Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker in 2004, “the unthinking man’s version of Nixon in China. What had once seemed antithetical—parody and power—had proved not to be.”
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