Campaign Humor Is in the Eye of the Viewer: Support for Candidates Predicts Evaluations of Their Jokes and Vice Versa

Released: 9/7/2011 5:00 AM EDT
Source Newsroom: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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Newswise — FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – On the campaign trail, humor may be in the eyes of the viewers. When presidential candidates poke fun at themselves or at opponents, viewers take away different impressions of the humor and of the candidates, based on previously held opinions.

During the 2008 election season, political scientist Patrick A. Stewart studied how viewers evaluated humorous comments by candidates. He used humorous comments delivered by presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain in a non-partisan venue, the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner to benefit Catholic charities, held just 19 days before the election.

He found that previously held opinions about the candidates influenced participants’ evaluations of the humorous comments. In turn, the evaluations of the humor influenced how participants saw both the source and the target of the humor.

“Pre-existing candidate evaluation plays the strongest role in the equation,” Stewart wrote.

The more positively participants rated a candidate’s likeability, intelligence, honesty, compassion and electability, the higher they rated the candidate’s humorous comment in terms of it making sense, being playfully told and being funny. In the end, there was little change in how participants evaluated candidates, either the one they supported or the opponent.

From video of the memorial dinner, Stewart selected two humorous comments apiece from each candidate, one a self-deprecating comment and the other a comment aimed at the opponent. The video clips were standardized as much as possible to show both candidates in white-tie attire delivering the humorous comments. The response of the audience at the dinner was also standardized, with an identical two-second clip of laughter following each comment.

The study involved 185 participants from three universities and one community college in the mid-South. Republicans and Democrats were equally represented at 39 percent each. The remaining 22 percent were independents or third-party members. The average participant reported being moderately to quite a bit interested in the election, reflecting the high levels of interest nationally.

Participants evaluated the two candidates prior to viewing the videos of the humorous comments and again afterwards. After viewing the videos, they were asked five questions about how funny the jokes were and feelings about the target of the joke.

How participants evaluated a candidate before watching the videos strongly influenced their subsequent evaluation of the candidates. This was especially true with McCain supporters, “appearing to not only consider his humor more positively, regardless of type of comment, but also view Obama’s humorous comments more negatively, especially when it attacks McCain.

“While humor is an important characteristic for leaders to possess, especially in an egalitarian society, the question remains: do we choose – at least partially – our leaders on the basis of their sense of humor or do we ascribe a sense of humor due to their being, at least potentially, in a leadership position?” Stewart asked.

Stewart is an assistant professor of political science in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. He is a certified coder in the Facial Action Coding System, and his current research focuses on nonverbal behavior by politicians during debates and the emotional response of citizens to different types of smiles by politicians.

“The Influence of Self- and Other-Deprecatory Humor on Presidential Candidate Evaluation During the 2008 U.S. Election” is published in the journal Social Science Information.

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