The Colbert Bump

Monday, September 1, 2008

The comedian Stephen Colbert routinely maintains that he plays an outsize role in influencing the course of American politics. After former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee appeared on "The Colbert Report," the show noted, Huckabee's popularity went from 1 percent to 3 percent.

"That's a 300 percent increase after a 2 1/2 -minute interview," Colbert declared. "If he keeps up that pace between now and the election, he'll be the first candidate ever to get elected with 88,128,000 percent of the vote."

Political scientist James Fowler of the University of California at San Diego recently decided to test Colbert's claims. He found, amazingly, that there was some truth -- or, at least, "truthiness" -- to them.

Democratic members of Congress who went on the show experienced spikes in both campaign contributions and the number of contributors -- they received as much as 40 percent more about two weeks after they went on the show than before. Republican members of Congress, however, showed the opposite effect -- their political contributions plateaued or fell.

Going on the show represents a risk for all politicians, Fowler said, but especially Republicans. Thus, politicians who appear on the show tend to be Democratic politicians in trouble, or Republicans so safely ahead in their races that they feel there is little risk.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has advised Democratic colleagues to avoid the show. That may be because, despite the bump in campaign contributions, Colbert asks his guests to finish sentences such as "I like cocaine because . . ." and "I like prostitutes because . . ."

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