For Candidates,Nighttime Is the Right Time

Despite risks, the potential upside of reaching voters through late-night shows is not debatable

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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