Mitt Romney’s late-night problem

October 31, 2012

It's not just Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert that are ragging on Mitt Romney these days.

In fact, late-night comedians have devoted significantly more time to lampooning the former Massachusetts governor than President Obama this election season.

According to a study by George Mason University's Center for Media and Public Affairs, four top late night shows have told more than twice as many jokes about Romney as about Obama.


David Letterman sits down with the Biebs. (John Paul Filo/AP)

Here's the breakdown of jokes:

1. Romney (R): 148

2. Obama (D): 62

3. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R): 39

4. Bill Clinton (D): 28

5. Paul Ryan (R): 20

6. Prince Harry: 19

7. Clint Eastwood (R): 18

8. Joe Biden (D): 16

9. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: 15

10. Chris Christie (R): 14

The study was conducted between Aug. 27 and Oct. 3 and included the following four shows: "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," "The Late Show with David Letterman," "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."

(Side note: No love for the great Jimmy Kimmel? What gives?)

The study notes that, while Letterman has been particularly hard on Romney, all four shows surveyed have focused more on the Republican than on Obama.

But the breakdown is actually more GOP-friendly than in 2008, when the shows told nearly three times as many jokes about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as about Obama and also told more jokes about Sarah Palin and George W. Bush than about Obama.

Part of this, undoubtedly, is the left-leaning nature of the entertainment business. While it's clear as day that Stewart and Colbert are no fans of the Republican Party, Republicans have also accused Letterman of drifting leftward in recent months, and the host has offered some pretty sharp jokes about Romney, who has often chosen to appear on Leno's show over his own.

But does it matter?

This is comedy, of course. And people don't go to Leno and Letterman to find out who they should vote for.

But suffice it to say that plenty of people who aren't so politically inclined may get their political news from these shows, and their characterizations of political candidates sometimes come to define those candidates. By the time 2008 was over, for example, many people were convinced that Palin had said "I can see Russia from my house," when in fact it has been Tina Fey impersonating Palin on "Saturday Night Live."

That said, Republicans have been fighting a losing battle with entertainment types for a long time now, and it's unclear that Romney is paying a higher price than his predecessors. Put the caricatures of Romney next to the caricatures of Bush or Palin, and they seem tame by comparison.

There's also the matter of Obama, a pretty straight-laced character who comedians say isn't easy to joke about. They note that they are happy to joke about Democrats, but that he's simply not an ideal canvas on which to paint. (We sympathize with this somewhat. Bill Clinton, after all, has arguably been the greatest foil for late night comedians over the last two decades.)

With Romney, though, the jokes have often served to reinforce one of the Obama campaign's central arguments against him: that he's an out of touch rich guy. And that probably doesn't help Romney.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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