The intersection of pop culture and politics has long been a staple of late night television, dating back at least as far as 1960, when presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar. Since then, late night television has become a regular stop for politicians seeking higher office.
So far during the current cycle, real estate mogul Donald Trump is winning the late night television primary.
Say what you want about Trump, his ego, politics or policies, but he seems to be way ahead of all the other candidates when it comes to using his entertainer skills to further his candidacy.
Much like President Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign cycle, Trump has shown he knows how to adjust and adapt based on the venue and audience, be it a campaign rally full of Trump sycophants or the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway and 54th.
For better or worse, that ability has proven to be just as important as appealing to the evangelicals in Iowa or the pancake breakfast crowd in New Hampshire for presidential upstarts who are in it for the long haul to win an election.
Case in point: Remember Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall in 1992?
Clinton’s opponents mocked him, but for those who tend to shy away from the daily blow-by-blow of U.S. politics, it created the illusion that Clinton was someone who wasn’t completely buttoned down and obsessed with winning the power of the office.
This is where Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and to some extent Hillary Clinton really could have stepped up their game in their late night TV appearances over the past few weeks.
Bush blew a prime opportunity earlier this month when he was a guest on Stephen Colbert’s debut as host of CBS’s “The Late Show.”
That show had whopping 6.7 million viewers, yet the best he could offer was the basic political stump-speech talking points he would have given to the Pensacola Kiwanis Club about how he was known as “Veto” Corleone while governor and how he would bring Americans together.
How will that distinguish him from any of the other candidates?
Much of the same could be said about former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon earlier this week.
One might have thought this would have been a place she could have shined, given her performance in the so-called undercard debate on Fox News last month. Instead, she recycled many of the same lines she had a week earlier in the CNN debate and ended it with a contrived effort to show her softer side by singing about her dog.
That might win you votes for mom of the year, but not leader of the free world, especially among the fickle 25-54 demographic that sometimes can be persuaded by style over wonkish substance.
As for the Tea Party hero in the field, Sen. Ted Cruz’s effort with Colbert went as well as expected. It’s just that these types of settings tend to create a disadvantage for a candidate perceived as the ideological standard bearer.
Cruz, more appropriately labeled as a maverick of the U.S. Senate than his colleague John McCain, playing defense against the former faux conservative pundit isn’t exactly entertaining television, nor is it going to inspire a populist movement fueled with buzzwords like “hope” and “change.”
Enter Donald Trump.
A couple of weeks earlier, Trump had appeared on Fallon’s “The Tonight Show.” It was vintage Trump — gruff, populist, etc. But Trump showed a willingness to entertain on Fallon’s playground and participate in an interview with Fallon playing Trump and was seemingly willing to do the same Tuesday night with Colbert and his shenanigans.
The bottom line is people don’t really want to hear policy positions and high-minded societal platitudes on their late night television.
Sure, Trump talked about the wall he envisions on the southern border and the Iran deal. But he avoided going into the weeds on marginal tax rates or the latest minutiae involving Hillary Clinton and her email server.
Even if Trump does not win the Republican nomination, this is one page of the playbook for the ultimate nominee to study. You have to make a connection to people who don’t dwell in the 24/7 cable news bubble.
If the first two-and-a-half weeks of Colbert’s CBS incarnation are an indicator, the show is looking to make more of a political impact than its two competitors, Jimmy Fallon on NBC and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. That may or may not encourage them to have more of the candidates on. If Colbert gets a ratings bump from going political, they may very well follow suit and we would see presidential candidates doing the “full Ginsberg” on all the broadcast networks.
Memo to GOP candidates: Soften up the edge and lighten the mood if you’re going to appear on these shows.
Meanwhile, on the other side, it’s probably a given that Hollywood will line up with the eventual Democratic nominee, as some actors have already publicly come out for Clinton, Joe Biden and even Bernie Sanders.
If a year from now the GOP nominee’s performance is compared to what we’ve seen out of a robotic Clinton, or what we may see from an elderly Sanders, there probably is not a whole lot to worry about.
However, if it’s Biden, that would be cause for concern. Biden has a compelling story, can turn on the “aw shucks” attitude when he wants and comes off more as an average guy than many of the other candidates.
For now, Trump is winning the late night show primary on the GOP side. Does that make him the best candidate?
No, but it does move the needle.