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Are You Laughing Now?

Comedy TV and the GOP.

12:00 AM, Apr 2, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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A little less than a year ago, I participated in a meeting in Washington, D.C., with some prominent political analysts forecasting the 2008 election. One topic focused on trends in the youth vote. For Republicans, the patterns were ominous. George W. Bush lost to John Kerry among 18-29-year-olds by nine points (54 percent - 45 percent). Two years later in 2006, Democratic congressional candidates expanded that gap to 22 points, winning the younger demographic group on average 60 percent - 38 percent. And at this meeting in the summer of 2008, one analyst noted Barrack Obama might beat John McCain by over 30 points in the under-30 cohort. He was right. The Democratic presidential candidate's margin surged to 34 points last November (66 percent - 32 percent) among 18-29-year-olds. Ouch!

During one of the breaks, I asked a well-respected academic political scientist what accounted for the sharp move in recent years. His answer: Comedy Central. "Jon Stewart has done more to destroy the Republican brand among young voters than any person in America." And after reviewing some new research, it's clear he may have been on to something.

18-29-year-olds are indeed getting more of their political news from non-traditional sources. A 2004 Pew study, for example, found that these Americans cited comedy shows like Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show almost as frequently as newspapers and network news as a primary source of information about campaigns.

But does this shift in viewership also affect political attitudes and behavior? Some new research suggests it does. Most investigations focus on cruder measures--such as tallying the number of jokes about Republicans versus Democrats. But a study just published by East Carolina University political scientist Jonathan S. Morris takes a more in-depth look at the impact of late-night comedy on political views. In the March issue of Political Behavior, Morris says The Daily Show's coverage of Republicans significantly damaged the images of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. At the same time, the program's treatment of John Kerry and John Edwards did not result in any movement in attitudes.

Using an innovative research design, Morris analyzed The Daily Show's coverage of the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates during the two national party conventions in 2004. He tracked attitudes about each side before and after the conventions and found Stewart's program harmed Republicans more than Democrats. Morris concludes: "The attitude shift of Stewart's audience during the Republican National Convention was significant, and watchers of The Daily Show became increasingly hostile toward President Bush and Vice President Cheney, while attitudes toward John Kerry and John Edwards remained fairly consistent. This relationship held even when several demographic and attitudinal factors were controlled, and the effect was not limited to partisan Democrats."

The study also shows the content of the criticism took on different styles. The humor aimed at Republicans ". . . took a sharper edge, and over one-third of the jokes preyed on policy failures or character flaws surrounding the participants," Morris writes. Democratic stories, by contrast, were "more light-hearted."

Morris is careful not to over-interpret his findings. He notes, for example, that his research only analyzes 2004 convention coverage. And, he points out that Stewart has said repeatedly he is ". . . just having fun pointing out the absurdities that emanate from the people and processes involved in today's political world" and not intending to persuade anyone. "Regardless," Morris writes, ". . . even though Stewart may not intend to persuade anyone, the evidence suggest that may have happened . . . "

The unbalanced treatment of the two parties on comedy channels extends beyond Stewart. HBO comedian Bill Maher often concludes with his now-common rant that the GOP is basically narrow-minded, hateful, dumb and bigoted. And while it's a less precise measure, the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University has compared the number of jokes aimed at Republicans and Democratic presidential candidates in the post-convention period between 1992 and 2004 and finds the GOP consistently takes the brunt.

In an increasingly fragmented media world, a shrinking share of voters receives election information from traditional sources such as network news. We also know that comedy is an effective way to communicate political information and persuade. As a result, more Americans will likely draw at least part of their political information from comedy-based sources.