Presidential candidates look to talk shows as campaigning tool

Janet Nguyen Nov 6, 2015

Bad jokes, bad dance moves and bad singing have become par for the course in the 2016 presidential race. 

In the past month, Bernie Sanders jammed to Drake’s “Hotline Bling” on the Ellen show,  Martin O’Malley sang Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” on “The View,” and Rand Paul talked about “yo mamma” jokes with Larry Wilmore on “The Nightly Show.”

Presidential hopefuls are increasingly using variety and talk shows to appear self-deprecating, down to earth and relatable. Donald Trump’s hosting gig on SNL this Saturday marks another television appearance in which candidates are gambling on more informal venues to reach voters.

The practice of using these platforms dates back decades, said Travis Gosa, a professor at Cornell University and co-editor of the book “The Hip Hop & Obama Reader.” Prominent examples include Bill Clinton’s appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992, where he belted out Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” on the saxophone.

But it was President Obama’s foray into the national talk show circuit that signified a turning point for this type of political campaigning, Gosa said.

A 2008 appearance on Ellen DeGeneres shows him hitting a punching bag and dancing to Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.”

“One thing that happened was that he was able to use the interview on Ellen to really define himself as young, cool, hip — even though he’s a horrible dancer — and sort of put himself out there,” Gosa said.   

His visit paid off, leading to the creation of online mash-ups that featured his dancing, Gosa said, adding that these appearances can help candidates extend their message to millennials and black and Latino voters.

Of course, using these outlets — where there aren’t a lot of hardball questions — enables candidates to show a softer side of themselves, said Justin Holmes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. And the stigma of appearing on such shows has lessened over the years.

“You don’t see people skipping out on these things anymore. In 1992, there were some questions about whether it was beneath the dignity of a political candidate to go on MTV or go on a talk show,” Holmes said. “We don’t have those questions anymore. They’re all doing it.”

Gosa said he thinks the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement —  during which conflict about the division between the “99 percent” and the “1 percent” came to a head — has boosted the appeal of appearing on a talk show or a variety show. 

“Poking fun at one’s self can really, I think, defuse some of that tension that voters have about, ‘Does this person look like me? Do they really have my interests in mind?’” Gosa said.

During a recent appearance on SNL, Hillary Clinton plays a bartender in a skit that makes fun of her political waffling on issues such as gay rights

There may not be a one size fits all approach, though, to the way candidates use less serious platforms to promote themselves, said Dannagal Young, an associate professor of communication at the University of Delaware.

People who are older and more conservative tend to be less fond of these “non-traditional” appearances, she said.

“I think there’s a sense that it debases the office, to have political candidates dancing with Ellen — that it cheapens the highest office in the land,” Young added.

And Gosa said he thinks going on talk shows may be seen to the GOP crowd as “pandering.”  

“There’s always the suspicion that Hollywood is part of some left-wing conspiracy to destroy what’s good about America,” he said. “I think when you see someone like Rand Paul reaching out to ‘The Nightly Show’… it’s a calculated risk.’”   

So will Donald Trump’s appearance on Saturday be a success?

Gosa said he thinks going on SNL is a smart move for Trump, and could be a way to counteract sketches that mock his self-aggrandizing persona.

But Young said she thinks an appearance from Trump, with his anti-immigration rhetoric, won’t do much of anything, given that his supporters and the opposition seem to be firmly set in their camps.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.