David Letterman has won exactly one night in the ratings since he and Jay Leno returned from strike-imposed hiatus. But it's a good bet he's about to win another one on Thursday night, when Barack Obama stops by the Ed Sullivan Theater to read the Top-10 list.
Obama is a dream guest for Letterman: He's big on Facebook and MySpace, and does particularly well with young males — once considered Letterman's core demo.
Letterman's good for Obama, too: Late night shows are an important part of running any national political campaign. They're humanizing, if you can pull them off, and they reach undecideds and people who might not otherwise vote. In any other year, you'd see Democrats on every late night show they could get on, from NBC's "Tonight Show," to Comedy Central's "Daily Show" and "Colbert Report." Even HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" would be a draw.
But since Democrats won't cross a Writers Guild of America picket line, Letterman has been the only game in town since the strike began Nov. 5. That's why Letterman has had Sen. Hillary Clinton by video, former Sen. John Edwards on Tuesday and now Obama. It's also why Leno has had to settle for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
But Letterman's advantage among Democrats hasn't translated into gains in the only polls the TV networks care about: ratings. Despite a big advantage in guests, Letterman has remained significantly behind Leno in the ratings. Over the first two weeks, Leno averaged nearly 5.5 million viewers and Letterman averaged nearly 4.3 million, according to Nielsen. But that should change tonight.