Late-Night Talk Shows Were Road to White House

December 29, 2008

December 29, 2008
Contact: Donald Rieck


Presidential candidates made 110 appearances on late-night TV comedy/talk shows during the 2008 presidential election campaign, according to a study released today by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA). The study found that John McCain appeared more often than any other candidate, while NBC’s Tonight Show edged out Comedy Central’s Daily Show as the program with the most guest appearances by candidates. According to CMPA President Dr Robert Lichter, “Talk show hosts have replaced editorial boards in vetting candidates for voters. David Letterman wasn’t kidding when he said, ‘The road to the White House runs through me.’”

These findings come from the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) 2008 Election Watch Project. We monitored candidate appearances on ten late night comedy and talk shows: The Tonight Show, Late Show with David Letterman, Latenight with Conan O’Brien, Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Colbert Report, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Last Call with Carson Daly, Real Time with Bill Maher and Saturday Night Live. In addition CMPA examined political jokes in show hosts’ monologues and election news stories on network and cable television. throughout the 2008 presidential election campaign. For results from other components of the project see []

Presidential candidates have trolled for votes on late-night TV talk shows ever since Bill Clinton played the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992. A 2007 Pew Research Center poll found that one in six Americans (16%) get political information from late-night comedy shows, including one out of four (26%) who are less than 30 years old. The under-30’s rely on comedy shows more than newspapers, broadcast news, or cable news. []

Major Findings:

During the 2008 presidential election campaign, presidential candidates made 110 appearances on late-night TV comedy/talk shows. Their appearances were “front-loaded,” as candidates used these shows for early public exposure – 50 appearances took place in the 2006-07 campaign “preseason,” 39 during the primaries, and only 21 during the general election.

John McCain led all candidates with 17 appearances, edging out surprise second-place finisher Mike Huckabee with 16 and Barack Obama with 15. Filling out the top ten were Hillary Clinton (7), Joe Biden (6), John Edwards (5), Dennis Kucinich (4), and Fred Thompson and Chris Dodd with 3 apiece. McCain also led in appearances by family members – wife Cindy (2) and daughter Meghan (2) gave the McCains a total of 21 appearances. Candidate spouses Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama also made two appearances. The most notable no-show (apart from McCain’s high-profile cancellation of a Letterman appearance in September) was Sarah Palin, who didn’t appear on any talk show during the campaign, although she famously appeared on Saturday Night Live.

Jay Leno was the host with the most guest candidates (22 appearances), edging out Jon Stewart (21) and David Letterman (19), followed by Stephen Colbert (15), Bill Maher (12), Saturday Night Live (8), Jimmy Kimmel (5), Conan O’Brien (4), Craig Ferguson (3) and Carson Daly (1).

Candidates in the 2008 campaign went on comedy/talk shows more than four times as often as their predecessors in 2004, who totaled only 25 appearances. Candidates with the most appearances in Campaign ’04 were John Edwards and Al Sharpton (5 apiece), Howard Dean (4), and Carol Moseley-Braun and Wesley Clark (3 apiece). Hosts with the most guest candidates were Bill Maher (10), followed by Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Jon Stewart (4 apiece).

Finally, the number of presidential wannabees who announced their candidacies on talk shows doubled from Campaign ’04, when John Edwards announced on the Daily Show. In Campaign ’08 McCain announced on Letterman and Fred Thompson followed suit on the Tonight Show.

CMPA is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization which is affiliated with George Mason University, where CMPA President Dr. Robert Lichter also serves as Professor of Communication. CMPA has monitored news coverage and jokes on late-night talk shows during every presidential election campaign since 1988.

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