It is a dilemma confronting political candidates of every stripe: To talk with the media, or not to talk with the media? The upside of granting TV interviews is obvious. There is no such thing, for a skilled spin artist, as bad publicity. Except, of course, when there is. As John McCain and Hillary Clinton have both shown in the past few weeks, the benefits of reaching more voters--and donors--through the media must be constantly weighed against the consequences of misspeaking or being misunderstood.
This goes double for those hardy souls contemplating an appearance on the incredibly popular, but politically hazardous, fake news shows like Comedy Central's Colbert Report, whose host, Stephen Colbert, in a jolly sendup of a cable news blowhard, skewers Republicans and Democrats alike. In a regular skit called "Better Know a District," Colbert gives little-known congressional representatives a national audience if they agree to sit down for some "tough" questions: He famously challenged Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican who supports displaying the Ten Commandments in the U.S. Capitol, to name them. (Westmoreland, in the spot broadcast on the show, could come up with only three.) Colbert recently asked Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, to help him finish sentences like "I like cocaine because..." and "I like prostitutes because..." (Wexler responded, with tongue in cheek, but with an anguished look on his face, "because it's a fun thing to do.")
Colbert gets his laughs, of course, but at a cost: Many political experts have come to believe the potential embarrassment of going on a fake news show can't possibly be worth it. Congressional aides have begun steering their bosses clear of Colbert. Even Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, has weighed in: "I wouldn't recommend that anyone go on the show," she advised her colleagues at a press conference in 2006.
These sage words aside, there may actually be a few reasons for politicians to give Colbert another chance--especially, it seems, if they are Democrats. In a straight-faced new study, James Fowler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California-San Diego, has conducted the first analysis of the political consequences of a candidate's appearance on the Colbert Report, and he finds that Democratic candidates who dare to go on the show, in particular, experience a huge "bump" in campaign contributions after the broadcast, no matter how silly Colbert makes them look.
In "The Colbert Bump in Campaign Donations: More Truthful Than Truthy," (.pdf) forthcoming in PS: Political Science & Politics, Fowler uses Federal Election Commission data to compare the political fates of the nearly 50 representatives who've appeared on the Colbert Report with a control group of similar candidates who have not yet been on the show. Democrats who braved Colbert's mocking interviews, he was surprised to find, not only saw the number of donations they received in the month after the show jump by one third, they raised 44 percent more money than their counterparts who did not go on the show. While the average candidate in Fowler's sample raises about $21,000 a month, Colbert's guests earned almost $30,000 after the broadcast. This "Colbert bump" wore off after a few months.
Republicans who appear on the show don't have quite the same experience. There have been only eight GOP candidates on "Better Know a District," and while Fowler is hesitant to make too much of such a small sample, he finds that Republicans as a group do not experience a Colbert bump. Contributions to Republican guests' campaigns stayed flat or even declined after the broadcast. (Maybe not a surprise, given the show's liberal audience.) Curiously, most of the Republicans who have appeared on the show experienced a 50 percent jump in donations in the month before the broadcast, instead
To Fowler, these findings offer the beginnings of an answer to that perennial question on the minds of Colbert Report viewers: Why on Earth did these people agree to this? "If you're a Democrat, you're more willing to go on the show if you need the boost," says Fowler. "If you're a Republican, you only do it when you're way ahead." Democrats seem to come to Colbert for publicity when their campaigns are struggling, willing to take a chance that they'll be embarrassed in exchange for more visibility. Indeed, Fowler found that most Democrats who appeared on the show were raising substantially less money--almost $8,000--than their peers in the month before the show. "Some of them seem to think that any news is good news at that point," says Fowler. "Make fun of me, but make sure you spell my name right." Republicans, meanwhile, seem to have accepted Colbert's invitation as a lark--or because they're not clear what they're getting into. Either way, the Republicans who appear on the show do so only when they're comfortably ahead in the polls. "Republicans have to feel very, very, very confident before they go on the show," says Fowler.
Fowler insists that his research, however lighthearted, may actually have broader implications. Political scientists have been examining how the media influence elections for decades--finding, generally speaking, that the more coverage a candidate can get, the better. But little work has been done on how specific media outlets, especially new media like blogs or fake news shows, have begun to affect election outcomes. "There's been this growing realization that we are getting our news from entertainment sources instead of traditional news sources," says Fowler. And while his research demonstrates that programs like the Colbert Report or the Daily Show, with their million-plus viewers, are being watched by politically savvy voters with deep pockets, the political establishment is still wary of them. "I think there's a disconnect between [Nancy] Pelosi's perception of the audience and the actual audience," says Fowler. "As it turns out, those million people have a big impact on whether candidates are receiving campaign donations. This is a well-to-do group, and it seems to be saying, 'If you're willing to put yourself in a situation where you're made fun of, I'm not going to hold that against you.' "
Unless, it seems, you're a Republican. Memo to John McCain: Just to be safe, it might be a good idea to steer clear of Comedy Central for a few months.
By Justin Ewers