The Tina Fey effect

Political scientists Jody Baumgardner, Jonathan Morris and Natasha Walth draw an interesting connection between late night television and electoral politics. They find, in a forthcoming Public Opinions Quarterly paper, that watching Tina Fey’s impressions of Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live” was associated with young Republicans and Independents becoming less likely to support the 2008 Republican ticket.

“When all other variables in the model are held at their mean, those who watched the SNL clip had a 45.4 percent probability of saying that Palin’s nomination made them less likely to vote for McCain,” they write. “This same probability drops to 34 percent among those who saw coverage of the debate through other media. Exposure to the clip had no significant effect on the likelihood of voting for Obama.”

This effect, they note, was limited to Republicans and Independents. Democrats, who began the study already less supportive of Palin, showed no discernible change in their views. Here’s more explanation from the authors on what, exactly, happened here:

We suggest that any potential ‘‘Fey Effect’’ can be understood within the context of priming and attitude change. This theory highlights the idea that the media draw ‘‘attention to some aspects of political life at the expense of others.” Citizens, who are overloaded with information, tend to come to judgment by activating familiar concepts — often those that the media have highlighted. In addition to other applications, priming has been used to explain attitude change in evaluations of presidential candidates and to show that negative political ads can adversely affect opinion. Unlike negative political ads, political humor seems to be fairly popular, which could increase receptiveness to the message. And, because political humor is a form of negative priming, it should also be associated with more negative perceptions of its targets, particularly targets that are new to the national political scene.

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