- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Presidential hopefuls, get thee to late night.

A study by the University of Washington released yesterday finds that candidates get a “measurable image boost” from an appearance on NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Jay Leno or “The Late Show” with David Letterman on CBS.

It’s a signal, said study director Patricia Moy, that a candidate is reaching out to the common man with “casual chat, good humor and likability” — playing up a humanized, regular-guy image.

“Some TV viewers may interpret a candidate’s willingness to be a guest on their favorite show as a sign he wants to reach more citizens, and cares about their concerns,” she said from Seattle yesterday.

But there is real impact: The study found that George W. Bush’s favorability ratings rose from 54 percent to 59 percent after just one appearance with Mr. Letterman during the 2000 presidential campaign.

“Candidates get a chance to speak in an unfiltered manner, minus sound bites,” Miss Moy said. “But there are risks — they also sacrifice spin control. A late-night appearance could backfire if the audience reacts in some unexpected way.”

Of course, the courtship between candidate and after-hours television has a long history. Few will forget Bill Clinton and his saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992, or Al Gore’s moments as a reinvented, earth-toned alpha male on MTV in 2000.

Mr. Bush has made the late-night rounds, and a beaming Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy for California governor last year before an enthusiastic “Tonight Show” audience.

Analysts have long weighed in on the lighter side.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs has charted the quantity and subject matter of late-night political jokes since 1989. A study released in March found that Democratic candidates were targeted by the likes of Messrs. Leno and Letterman more than Mr. Bush this year — 249 jokes to 213, respectively.

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center found that 9 percent of all Americans got their campaign news from late-night television in 2000 and again this year — more than C-SPAN, which warranted 8 percent this year.

Among the 18-29 age group, however, 13 percent look to late-night and 21 percent turn to comedy TV shows such as NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” for political information.

At 44 million strong, the young and the restless are a much coveted voting bloc.

“If you can get a generation to vote, that can swing an election,” Miss Moy noted.

Her study is based on responses from 11,482 adults polled in the National Annenberg Election Survey of 2000. After the late-night appearances of presidential candidates, viewers perceived Mr. Bush to be “more honest, inspiring and a leader,” and Mr. Gore to be “more knowledgeable and caring.”

Both candidates showed significant gains in their favorability ratings after going on “Late Night” and “The Tonight Show,” which each reach at least 3 million viewers a night.

But late-night television is just part of the picture, Miss Moy cautions.

“Research tells us voters’ political decisions are based on many factors, including candidates’ issues stance and their ability to interact with people and make them comfortable,” she said.

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