President Barack Obama's ability to get out the youth vote may hinge on two surprising men: comedians Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of the eponymous Report.
In 2008, Obama won the 18-to-29-year-old demographic by 34 percentage points over John McCain. That was nearly double the largest youth vote any prior Democratic candidate had captured. (In his 1996 re-election bid, President Bill Clinton won the 18-to-29-year-old voters by 19 points.) But four years ago was the time of change they could believe in. Now this demographic is disillusioned: One half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, according to a recent Associated Press analysis of government data.
However, comedy could be central to Obama's comeback among this group of young voters. In "Hearing It From Jon Stewart," Xiaoxia Cao, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, examined the impact of The Daily Show on the political attention span of less engaged voters.
The 2010 paper, published by Oxford University's Journal of Public Opinion Research, has gone largely unnoticed vis-a-vis young people's commanding turnout in the 2008 election. According to the study, The Daily Show turned apolitical viewers' attention to issues such as the war in Afghanistan and presidential campaign news discussed with relative frequency on the show.
"The least attentive viewers were 13 percent more likely to attend to the issue very closely than were similarly inattentive non-viewers. Viewers with a medium level of political attentiveness were 8 percent more likely to follow the issue than were their counterparts who did not watch the show."
While Cao did not specifically trace social activism elicited by Stewart's show, we know that Americans, according to Pew Research Center surveys, consider Stewart among their most trusted newsmen. The Project for Excellence in Journalism added that Stewart is "getting people to think critically about the public square." And according to a Rasmussen Reports survey: "Thirty percent of those ages 18-29 say programs like the two Comedy Central shows that feature news reports with a comic twist are replacing traditional news outlets."
On at least two specific issues since 2008, Stewart and Colbert have appealed to their young audiences with some real results.
In December 2010, Stewart lambasted Republicans for filibustering legislation providing health benefits to Sept. 11 first responders. Shortly thereafter, the bill passed. And in this election cycle, Colbert's super PAC has highlighted the out-of-control money in politics, where a billionaire can rig the entire system. When politics is the talk of the college commons, it is Stewart and Colbert who frequently dominate the conversation. Clips of their shows flood the feeds of young people's Facebook and Twitter accounts.
"We have busier schedules and commitments than ever, (and) live in a political world that all too often seems out-of-touch and distant," says Stephen Ratner, a senior at Emory University and a political science major. But Ratner believes that both comics make politics connect for many students who are deeper in their academic books than in presidential politics.
"At Emory, I often hear the call for Stewart and Colbert to come speak on campus. I know that (they) have often made the final short list of commencement speakers here."
Alex Leopold, a senior at Concordia University, believes that Colbert's super PAC drew young people's attention to this year's endless cash-raising derby. "I also know of some of my peers whose first political contribution (and probably last) was to Colbert's super PAC."
"As twisted as this form of involvement may be, contributions to his super PAC have peculiarly managed to involve many college students in today's political system," added Leopold. "I don't think a day goes by where someone hasn't brought up something that happened on the Stewart or Colbert show last night."
Unfettered from conventions that drive "real" political reporting, Stewart's satire often rings truer because he can say what conventional political reporters can't. Cutting through hypocritical paradoxes — and often blatant nonsense — helps him to connect with younger viewers to whom comedy is valuable. According to a Nielsen Entertainment Television survey, young men said that they would rather be stuck in elevator with Jon Stewart than Super Bowl MVP and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
So here's the sequence that Obama is hoping for: Comedy engages younger Americans in the issues, engaged people vote, and young voters skew heavily toward Obama. Which is why it isn't surprising to see the president of the United States appearing on comedy shows. Stay tuned.
Alexander Heffner, a young voter himself, is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to Perspective. He covers the campaign at SCOOP2012.com.