“Live from New York, It’s Political Influence”

By Clarissa Speyer-Stocks ’16

Could it be possible that the beloved late night sketch comedy show, “Saturday Night Live,” is swaying your vote? Academics and lobbyists would argue that it does, so it’s important to consider whether such an impact is just a funny coincidence or a purposeful intent to change your ideas.

William Horner, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri, has been studying this hypothesis for year. He argues that “Saturday Night Live” and shows like it have been influencing elections since their inception. He argued that in their second season, “Saturday Night Live” had Chevy Chase portray President Gerald Ford as an incompetent and clumsy idiot in order to sway the 1976 election between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Chase later revealed he wished for Jimmy Carter to win the election.

Horner does admit that there’s little ability to track the correlation between television comedy shows and their influence on voting patterns.

“The ’76 election was the first that may have been seriously influenced by television humor quantifying the change in electoral results is hard to prove.”

Despite this, the creator and executive producer of “SNL,” Lorne Michaels, swears that there is no waySaturday Night Live” cannot be biased, otherwise the audience wouldn’t tune in. And yet many former stars and cast members have admitted to a liberal bias being the focal point of “SNL” politics.

“We obviously have a liberal bias,” said former cast member Tina Fey. Fey’s claim to fame was her infamous impression of Governor Sarah Palin during the 2008 election. Her impression of Palin was so uncanny that many mistook Fey for the Alaskan Governor. In fact, to this day, many believe the famous line that Fey coined, “I can see Russia from my house”, was actually said by Palin.

Since then, researchers have called the 2008 phenomenon the “Fey Effect”. In 2012, researchers at East Carolina University determined that Fey’s depiction of Governor Palin did change how voters viewed her. This study, which surveyed 1,755 respondents, showed that subjects who saw Fey’s Palin spoof had an 8.5 percent probability of approving McCain’s selection of Palin, while 75.7 percent disapproved. But with those who hadn’t seen the spoof reported a 16.1 percent approval of McCain’s choice and a 60.1 percent disapproval.

Gerald Ford and Chevy Chase sit together before the Conference "Humor and the Presidency" held at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in 1986. Chase impersonated Ford mercilessly on ​SNL. (Wikimedia)

Gerald Ford and Chevy Chase sit together before the Conference “Humor and the Presidency” held at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in 1986. Chase impersonated Ford mercilessly on ​SNL. (Wikimedia Commons)

Because of this, it can be hard for the public to draw a line between reality and comedic persona. So if shows like “Saturday Night Live” depict politicians as bumbling idiots, the public can be greatly influenced by the show’s satire.

In addition to impersonating politicians, “SNL” caters to the campaigning as well. For example, during the 2008 election, the show booked John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama. Most recently, presidential candidate Donald Trump hosted “SNL” this year and competitor Hillary Clinton guest-starred alongside cast member Kate McKinnon, who famously portrayed Clinton on the show.

“Appearances on late-night comedy programs have become an essential part of campaign strategy and, increasingly, political strategy more generally,” Lauren Feldman, an academic at the School of Communication at American University, told Big Think. “This is, in large part, due to the fragmentation, or breaking up, of the mass media audience.”

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney turned down the opportunity to be a part of “SNL,” because he thought it wouldn’t look good for his image. He told Mother Jones, “Saturday Night Live has the potential of looking slapstick, and not presidential.”

For some Americans, the way to their heart and vote is through appearances on satirical shows. Because even though the candidates are mocked, they are receiving attention that may help them achieve the presidency as they might appear more easy-going or relatable.

Overall, the political satire and comedy on “SNL” has arguably become a large influence on American voters, not only swaying the election with unflattering impressions, but also using guest appearances to alter political perspectives.