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'Saturday Night Live' Political Skits May Sway The Presidential Election, Academics Argue

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This Sept. 15, 2012 photo released by NBC shows Jay Pharoah portraying President Barack Obama during a skit from the late night comedy series
This Sept. 15, 2012 photo released by NBC shows Jay Pharoah portraying President Barack Obama during a skit from the late night comedy series "Saturday Night Live," in New York. (AP Photo/NBC, Dana Edelson)

"Saturday Night Live" political skits may actually have an influence on voters, in the opinion of several academics who have studied the issue.

William Horner, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, has studied the influence of SNL on voters for an upcoming book he's writing. When the show debuted in 1976, Jimmy Carter was running to unseat Gerald Ford. Because of incidents in which Ford tripped and fell on the stairs of Air Force One, twice, SNL's version using Chevy Chase portrayed Ford as a clumsy person. The Columbia Tribune reports Horner thinks this was very important to the '76 election:

Horner is convinced Chevy Chase's impersonation of a bumbling Ford influenced the outcome of the election. Chase, in later interviews, has admitted he wanted Carter to win, but Horner said Michaels is adamant that "SNL" is not and cannot be biased, for risk of losing fans.

However, he's not sure this year SNL will be as influential as in the 2008 election.

It is a popular belief that Sarah Palin actually said "I can see Russia from my house." In fact, the quote came from an SNL skit in which Tina Fey played the Alaska governor.

Joe Saltzman, a professor in the USC Annenberg School for Communication, said in 2008 there is "anecdotal evidence" of SNL's influence, nothing official.

"The perception is that there’s an audience that cites its primary news source as predominantly entertainment shows and, if valid, this certainly would have an impact on the presidential election," Saltzman said. "The fact that the candidates go on "The Daily Show," SNL and the "Tonight Show" means they believe the shows have impact on the voters."

Indeed, both Barack Obama and John McCain went on SNL and "The Daily Show" during the 2008 campaign. George W. Bush made an appearance on SNL before winning the election as well.

"Appearances on late-night comedy programs have become an essential part of campaign strategy and, increasingly, political strategy more generally," Lauren Feldman, a scholar at the School of Communication at American University told Big Think. "This is, in large part, due to the fragmentation, or breaking up, of the mass media audience."

Even Richard Nixon appeared on Rowan & Martin's "Laugh-In" in 1968 to famously ask "Sock it to me?"

Feldman noted Obama was the first sitting president to actually appear on a comedy show, when he went on the "Tonight Show" in 2009, subsequently on David Letterman and "The Daily Show."

In the recently released video of Mitt Romney at a fundraiser, the current GOP candidate said he turned down an offer to appear on SNL because he thought it wouldn't "look presidential." He might not realize that current and previous presidents went on there before they were elected.

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