For Candidates, Nighttime Is the Right Time

Despite risks, the potential upside of reaching voters through late-night shows is not debatable 4/30/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern

The trip to the Oval Office makes many
stops, with few of them offering the chance for
as much candidate cred as the couches of latenight
TV. For decades, these shows have been must-hit
presidential campaign stops, producing memorable TV
moments like Bill Clinton in shades, wailing on the
saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992.

In the 2012 election cycle, Barack Obama and Mitt
Romney have already both appeared on The Tonight Show
With Jay Leno
; Romney on Late Show With David Letterman;
and Obama on April 24 made his first appearance
on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Though today’s
fragmented television landscape means no show draws
the audience it used to, such appearances on late-night
TV are seen as a way to reach a broad audience and
a chance for candidates to have a little fun and show
voters they are just like them.

“Obama has a lot to gain and Romney, if he doesn’t
[do late-night shows], has a lot to lose, because he can’t
afford to be the butt of jokes,” said political consultant
Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on the 1996 Clinton/
Gore campaign. “It’s more likely that people will make
fun of a challenger than an incumbent president.”

And Obama has certainly had his practice on the latenight
circuit, appearing as a guest six times and making
history in 2009 by becoming the first sitting president
to appear on a late-night talk show, The Tonight Show.

The guest appearances, like everything in politics,
are carefully planned. Late Night had been communicating
with the White House ever since First Lady
Michelle Obama appeared on the show for a fitness
challenge segment in February, with the Obama camp
no doubt seeing it as an opportunity to reach Fallon’s
younger-skewing viewers.

In the show, taped at the University of North Carolina-
Chapel Hill, Obama voiced his opposition to the proposed
interest rate hikes on Stafford student loans in
an effort to rally young voters, a demographic seen
as crucial to his win in 2008 but one whose support
has dwindled this election cycle. He even showed his
lighter side, participating in the show’s “Slow-Jam the
News” segment, playing the straight man role (usually
filled by NBC newscaster Brian Williams) to Fallon’s
sultry crooner—a nice bit for the man Fallon called
“The Preezy of the United Steezy.”

For Romney, who has battled a perception among
some as being stiff and unrelatable, late-night shows offer
an opportunity to humanize him as a candidate by
poking fun at himself. Last December, he delivered the
Top Ten List on Letterman and said the No. 1 thing he’d
like to tell the American public is “It’s a hairpiece.”

“Democrats and Republicans are interesting because
Republicans really laugh at themselves more,” Leno
said in a recent interview for Meet the Press.

Though for Republicans and Democrats, sitting across
from a comedian doesn’t come without risks. Former
White House press secretary Dana Perino said on Fox
& Friends
last week that George W. Bush never went on
late-night shows as president because “He just didn’t
think it was a place where the president should be,” she
said. “And also they’re dangerous.”

“The risk is that you’ll say something that is either
stupid or can be taken out of context and wind up in
a negative ad later,” Sheinkopf said. “The other downside
is that you’ll be unentertaining, stiff as a board, and
people will say, ‘What a doofus.’”

Obama’s slow-jam drew backlash from Republicans,
who said the president was trying to distract from his
policy failures, and even Jon Stewart opined on The
Daily Show
that the stunt was beneath the office of the
president. But as long as people—especially the people
campaigns want to reach—are watching late-night TV,
candidates are likely to continue stopping by.

“You’ll probably see Obama do it more than Romney,”
Sheinkopf said. “Obama’s got to get there because his
problem is to bring back the people who voted for him,
and that right now seems to be a big problem.”

For the shows themselves, the upside is that the guest
appearances tend to get more press traction when political
guests are on, especially if a clip goes viral, as
Obama’s news jam did from last week.

Perhaps remembering this, Stewart immediately
backtracked after remarking that, as the president,
Obama didn’t have to do late-night comedy bits anymore,
before adding, “Although we’d obviously love to
have you back on the show.”

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