Consider this piece of political-humor history: On October 3, Al Gore debated George Bush in the first nationally televised debate of the 2000 election. The two traded comments over social security, and many thought the debate went solidly to Gore. A CNN tracking poll from October 5 (two days after the debate) put Gore ahead of Bush by 9 points. Two days later, SNL ran a famous skit in which Gore and Bush discussed social security with a recurring reference to the "lockbox." After another two days, the same poll had Bush with an eight point lead. The depictions of the characters in the SNL debate had turned the public against Gore, though of course Gore clawed his way back. The lesson here is that humor matters enormously (see here).
In fact, humor probably matters even more, as some studies show that today's young are even more impressed with humor and responsive to jokes. A recent poll said that 88% of young people view humor as critical to their self-conception. And what's more, the informal study conducted by Comedy Central (kind of a market-testing type thing) showed that millennials are one of the first generations to privilege humor over music as their preeminent form of self-expression.
This is not surprising, as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert dominate the political discussion among millennials. Philosophically, it's interesting to note this approach to humor, which subverts the blustery rhetoric of retail politics and presents opportunities to address problems in new ways.
Given the importance of humor, speculation about what young people will do in 2012 should turn partly on the wider media culture and how seriously the candidates take themselves. And I'll give you a hint, it doesn't bode well for either Obama or Romney (who I'm deceptively using as "frontrunner" in this piece).
Romney's sense of humor, probably more than his policies, will hurt him with young people. He's the kind of robotically funny kid we all knew in school. I feel for him; his jokes just don't resonate with a culture that's ruder than his prim Mormon upbringing (and that's not just speculation, it's confirmed by his friends and acquaintances in this biography). To get a taste of his weirdness, just remember back to his claim that he was "unemployed too," which he gave in response to a group of Floridians explaining their joblessness. He laughed after he said that too. And in New Hampshire, he had this gem: “I saw the young man over there with eggs Benedict, with hollandaise sauce with the eggs there ... And I was going to suggest to you that you serve your eggs with hollandaise sauce in hubcaps. Because there’s no plates like chrome for the hollandaise.”
I don't have any ready examples of Santorum's on-the-trail humor, but his buddy Foster Friess made an offensive joke about women keeping aspirin between their legs as a contraceptive. Santorum was forced to walk back a joke that wasn't even his. “It was a bad joke, it was a stupid joke. It’s not reflective of me or my record on this issue. ... This is the same gotcha politics that you get from the media and I’m just not going to play that game." One recent measurement of Santorum's general appeal (not really a measurement of his humor), was a Michgan poll that put him way ahead of Romney as someone that respondents would want to have a beer with.
Obama hasn't fared much better either. His State of the Union speech had the "spilled milk" joke that was a groaner. Nonetheless, Obama seems unable to lose his somewhat cool aura. As our cameraman at PolicyMic put it, Obama seems "like just a cool guy." Maybe it has to do with the beer summit he held. Maybe Obama wins on that metric against Santorum? Further polling is needed.
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