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Debatable Character: Late-Night Comedy and the Representation of Character During Presidential Debates

Presidential debates are a goldmine of material for late-night comedy shows. SNL, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, and others continually mock and parody the candidates’ many quirks and weaknesses. These debates also play an increasingly important role in American politics as evidenced in the fact that one of the Trump vs. Clinton debates was the most watched debate in American history (Nielsen, 2016). Debates offer each candidate the valuable opportunity to showcase his or her personality. Therefore, it is a space to shape people’s perception of the candidates’ character traits. Infamous examples include Nixon in 1960 sweating profusely, Al Gore loudly sighing in 2000, or Obama visibly distracted during the debate that coincided with his wedding anniversary in 2012. Holian and Prysby (2014) show that character traits such as integrity, leadership, competence, and empathy have a measurable effect on candidates’ electability. When voters have poor opinions of certain candidates’ traits, they are less likely to vote for them. My research categorizes over 200 minutes of late-night comedy’s attacks on candidates’ integrity, leadership, competence, and empathy over the last three election cycles. By understanding representation of character and categorizing these trait attacks, researchers in the future can best measure their effects on aspects such as voting behavior or opinions about debate outcome or candidate electability. The initial categorization suggests that most trait attacks are centered around one or two central character traits of the candidate. Most of these attacks were done using personal history as the main referent of the joke.

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Santiago Blanco


William Carr


Santiago Blanco

Type: Oral
Discipline: Humanities
Institution: Brigham Young University

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