Our next president will be chosen by the likes of Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Lorne Michaels, Seth Meyers or Trevor Noah. While that may seem absurd to many voters, it’s safe to say that 2016 will be a media election. Late-night shows are having an increasing impact on the electorate as a whole. It is easy to see why Hillary Clinton values a cameo on “Saturday Night Live” (1975 – present) and Donald Trump will be hosting the famous NBC program on Nov. 7. Voters see Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders sitting down with Colbert as often as they see Marco Rubio or Ben Carson taking questions on Fox News. In order to win the election, the candidates first have to win late-night.
“The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” (2015 – present) draws 3.2 million viewers, and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” (2014 – present) pulls in 3.6 million. However, those numbers don’t just include the middle aged viewer (the demographic that traditionally tunes into late-night talk shows). Late-night television is starting to dominate the all important 18 to 49 age range; highly viewed YouTube videos include an “SNL” skit mocking the Democratic debate, a Jimmy Kimmel bit about Trump and Clinton, John Oliver’s take on Trump and Cruz’s tough interview with Colbert. A Fallon skit from September that features the host impersonating Trump has 6,790,026 views as of press time. Many of the most popular videos posted to Colbert’s YouTube channel are election-related. Meyers routinely criticizes candidates of both parties on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” (2014 – present), and on “The Daily Show,” Noah has created many viral moments at the expense of candidates.
Voters get their news not only from journalists at MSNBC or The New York Times but also from writers at Comedy Central or The Onion. In 2008, Tina Fey defined Sarah Palin before Palin had a chance to define herself. We remember the famous “SNL” moments as much as we remember Palin’s actual speeches. In this election cycle, comedians will define the candidates to an even greater degree, as their audience is only growing.
Noah, Colbert and the writers at “SNL” will be relentless. Everything a candidate does will be parodied, analyzed and shared on Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites. The availability of platforms on which to share viral clips has increased at almost the same rate as the producers of those viral clips. The populous demands for the type of burns, impersonations and highbrow humor that late night hosts are more than willing to provide. Voters don’t just hear what Bush or Clinton said, but they also know how “Weekend Update” hosts Michael Che and Colin Jost will respond. Late-night isn’t just confined to television sets anymore. Sound bites from these shows reverberate around the internet and smartphones, reaching an audience that was unimaginable in previous election cycles. While Sanders and Trump tweet, Rubio and Rand Paul upload campaign photos to Instagram and Chris Christie and Martin O’Malley post to Snapchat, “SNL” and “The Tonight Show” mock the absurdity of it all. There should be no doubt: this is the social media election. This is the late-night election.