Given that we already know from a pool report much of what the Romneys will say on “Live! With Kelly and Michael,” as their appearance was taped on Friday, and that Obama already has appeared on “Late Show with David Letterman” several times, by most expectations the guest spots will be light-hearted and humanizing. They will likely fulfill campaigns’ goals of reaching voters who may not otherwise be paying much attention, or who may be among the small cadre of undecided voters.
There is not much data on the impact that daytime and late-night talk campaign stops have on the race itself, but they traditionally do provide a ratings boost for the shows.
These type of guest shots largely got their start with the success that Bill Clinton had in playing sax on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992, and accelerated after George W. Bush and Al Gore each appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in the fall of 2000. Last cycle saw the entry of “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood” as spots for candidates to do People-esque interviews, and that has continued in 2012. Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama in 2007 underscored the sway that a daytime persona can have.
Yet given that these shows are perceived to be “soft,” they do carry a degree of risk, particularly when serious and unpredictable events are unfolding. As protests spread across the Middle East, how does it look if Mitt is talking Snooki or Obama is yukking it up with Letterman?
Yet as I wrote in November, campaigns have evolved in the weight they place on the softer side of the media. On the day that accusations of sexual harassment were publicly leveled at presidential candidate Herman Cain, he didn’t cancel an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” but went ahead anyway to do damage control.
Perhaps the most infamous lesson learned was by the McCain campaign in 2008. The week that Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the economy was in freefall, McCain was scheduled to go on Letterman. Instead, he cancelled, but scheduled an interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric. The result was withering ridicule from the late-night host.
McCain’s senior adviser Steve Schmidt still considers the decision a mistake.
As I wrote last year, “Schmidt said there was a big internal debate in the campaign on whether to cancel. Given that the campaign was trying to convey the gravity of the financial crisis, skipping Letterman was the conventional wisdom, but ‘it was old wisdom,’ Schmidt said. ‘The notion that voters filter the content depending on the type of show it is on is wrong,’ he said, adding that with voters getting their information from so many non traditional sources, going on Letterman would have given McCain the chance to explain, without a filter, the context of his decision to suspend his campaign.
Romney’s appearance — which generated headlines not just for Snooki, but for the candidate’s suggestion that he wears little to bed — may take on even greater importance this cycle as his campaign tries to overcome a polling deficit among women voters, as well as a perception that he is awkward in the campaign stump.
So instead of these appearances by Romney and Obama giving voters a rare glimpse into the softer side of themselves, they actually are now part of the routine. This isn’t the end of the softer part of the fall campaign, but the start.