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Lauren Stange

President Obama’s appearance on the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon show prompted a few news outlets, such as Politico, to mention notable times throughout recent history that presidential candidates appeared on late night entertainment talk shows.  The most memorable moments were not because of a political comment or controversy that occurred on the show, but were instead moments when these candidates non-political personality came through.

The traditional content and audience of these late night entertainment talk shows allows candidates to reach an audience that is unlikely to seek information from traditional political outlets and allows them to appeal to this audience on a personal level instead of from a policy standpoint.

Matthew A. Baum’s article in the American Journal of Political Science supports this argument, stating that “by focusing on candidates’ personal qualities rather than ‘arcane’ policy debates, such as interviews, can appeal to their relatively apolitical, entertainment-seeking audiences.”  Baum states that the entertainment talk show audience is, on average, less educated, less interested in politics and more likely to be young, liberal, and female.

Baum concludes that candidates’ appearances on entertainment talk shows makes an impression on individuals that are not predisposed to seek out political information, but has little to no effect on those that are.  He mentions that the candidates use talk shows as a means of putting their political information where “politically unaware” individuals are likely to see it.  This conclusion does make sense, however, I think that Baum does not give enough attention to the likelihood that these individuals are not forming opinions based on the subtle political messages they get from these talk shows.

He notes that many of these “politically unaware” voters are more likely to vote against their affiliated party after seeing these individuals on entertainment talk shows and that hosts of the shows are not likely to ask many policy-related questions.  This supports to the idea that these voters likely gained little, if any, information about the candidate’s policies and more about their personality.

The previously noted article in Politico, as well as others, cites the most notable appearances of candidates on entertainment talk shows.  These examples are notable not because of the profound political arguments or statements they made, but instead are virtually unrelated comical or interesting things the candidates said or did.  Examples include when Bill Clinton played his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1993 and in 2000 when George W. Bush told David Letterman, who recently had heart surgery, that it was “about time you had the heart to invite me.”

One conclusion made by Barry A. Hollander in his study about what late night entertainment does to improve the campaign knowledge of young viewers notes the difference between recall and recognition.  He claims that while “improvement in recognition increases…late-night viewing increases what young people think they know about a political campaign but provides at best modest improvements to actual recall of events associated with the campaign.”

Putting these ideas together, it can be concluded that “politically unaware” individuals that watch entertainment talk shows are likely to appeal to the personalities of these candidates instead of their policy positions.  However, because some political topics are bound to surface, these individuals feel as though they are more familiar with the candidates’ campaign issues when, in actuality, they are more familiar with their campaign.  This recognition and attraction to personality are likely to be the actual reasons for why these “politically unaware” voters may vote against their affiliated party member.

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