WASHINGTON - Nation, many of you have heard about the satirically pompous late night TV comedian who claims that politicians who brave an appearance on his show will be swaddled in electoral mojo.
Well, in all truth (or truthiness, for that matter), it appears there actually might be something to the so-called Colbert Bump, the self-proclaimed phenomenon ascribed to faux right-wing talk show host, Stephen Colbert.
A just published study in a journal of the American Political Science Association concludes that there’s a financial benefit to Democratic congressmen and congressional candidates in submitting themselves to a teasing on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report.
“Candidates who went on the show raised about 44 percent more money than like candidates who didn’t in the 30 days after the show,” explained the study’s author, University of California San Diego political scientist James Fowler.
This may, indeed, be the season when the traditionally detached discipline of academic research finally collides with our traditionally undisciplined fascination with tabloid celebrity gazing.
Another new study from economists at the University of Maryland relates subscription data for Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine to vote totals for Barack Obama. The researchers conclude that Winfrey’s endorsement of the Illinois Democrat gained him more than 1 million votes during the presidential primaries.
The Colbert findings seem particularly intriguing since Democratic leaders in Congress, among them House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, once warned colleagues to steer clear of Colbert. A spokeswoman for Emanuel said they feared that comments made on the show could be taken out of context.
“That’s a silly thing to do,” said Fowler of the not all that effective leadership boycott. “How can it be bad (for a politician) when it gives you exposure?”
Here’s how it can be bad. In an interview, Colbert once induced Florida Democrat Rep. Robert Wexler to finish the sentences “I like cocaine because….” and “I like prostitutes because….” Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, an advocate of displaying the Ten Commandments in Congress, was asked by Colbert to name all the commandments but could remember three.
Fans of Colbert - and Fowler counts himself among them - might find more than a bit of irony in scholarly research applied to the fake talk show, in which the comedian poses as an anti-intellectual know-it-all.
In character, Colbert preens over anything that highlights his prowess, but the reaction of the real life comedian to Fowler’s research is unclear. Colbert did not respond to requests for comment.
Colbert’s nationally televised cable show has a strong appeal among politically active liberals, so it’s hardly a shock that Democrats can reap benefits from an appearance. But Fowler, who is known for avant garde political and social research, said he took out his measuring stick in response to unquestioning media hype about Colbert’s influence.
The methodology is complicated, but he combed federal campaign data to compare the fundraising experience of congressional candidates who had been raising money at about the same clip up until the time some of them appeared on Colbert’s show. For those who took the Colbert plunge, contributions spiked after their appearance, Fowler found.
The phenomenon, he said, appeared limited to Democrats. Then again, Fowler said, so few Republicans agreed to appear on the show that any valid statistical comparison was hard to make.
“It was the worst experience I’ve had as a press secretary,” confided a spokesman for a politician who appeared on the show. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he still gets blamed around the office for letting his boss submit to the interview, which is still mentioned on the Internet.
“It’s like a case of herpes,” he said. “It never goes away.”
Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois subjected herself to a Colbert grilling and came away looking a little foolish. An enthusiastic “Yes” she uttered at one point in the interview was spliced to make it appear as if she was responding to a question about whether she took drugs.
Schakowsky, nonetheless, said was glad she went on the show, if only to score points for bravery. “He’s going to get you one way or another,” she said. “...At worst you come off as a good sport, which it doesn’t hurt to be.”
(Fretland reported from Washington and Secter from Chicago.)