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The Globe and Mail

Late-night comics target Romney two-to-one

U.S. President Barack Obama makes an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman in New York on Sept.  18, 2012.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Maybe Mitt Romney is wise to avoid the late-night talk shows.

Over the past couple of months, as Barack Obama has sat down with David Letterman, Jay Leno and Jon Stewart, and even paid a visit to MTV, his Republican challenger has kept a wary distance from the comedians. His advisers have suggested those outlets don't offer him a good platform to look presidential. But a new study from the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University suggests the Romney camp might be justified in seeing the late-night shows as hostile territory.

The CMPA says that, between the conclusion of the GOP convention in August and October 3, the four major late-night hosts on broadcast networks – Letterman, Leno, Craig Ferguson, and Jimmy Fallon – have made more than twice as many jokes about Mr. Romney than Mr. Obama, by a count of 148 to 62.

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"Romney is leading in the humour race, but being the biggest joke is a race nobody wants to win," said Dr. Robert Lichter, the president of the CMPA, in a statement.

That may not necessarily be the case: political advisers are divided on the effects of jokes on political campaigns. Though some suggest the jokes belittle candidates, many believe the joshing has no effect; others argue the jokes humanize candidates. (A recent episode of 30 Rock used this last effect as a plot point, informed by the response that the show's creator Tina Fey saw to her sharp impersonation of the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.)

The CMPA, a non-profit research organization which declares itself to be non-partisan, found that Letterman was the harshest Romney comic, telling 44 jokes about the Republican candidate and only nine about Mr. Obama.

Counting all of the hosts' jokes, the CMPA said other targets included Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who had just published a book about his philandering (39 jokes); frequent target Bill Clinton (28); and Mr. Romney's running mate Paul Ryan (20). The list was rounded out by Prince Harry, then embroiled in a nudity scandal (19); Clint Eastwood (18), who had scolded an imaginary Mr. Obama during a speech at the Republican National Convention; vice-president Joe Biden (16); Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (15), and the New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a Republican (14).

The CMPA noted that, for Mr. Obama, "being bypassed by TV's humorists is nothing new. In the 2008 general election, CMPA found that he finished fourth with 243 jokes, behind GOP candidates John McCain (658), Sarah Palin (566), and outgoing president George W. Bush (244)."

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