Politics Counts: The Impact of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert

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Among the many forces that go into shaping a campaign – from speeches to advertisements – late-night comedy has earned a special place. It’s where narratives about candidates can be created and grow free of the constraints of regular journalism, for better or worse. On late-night TV a candidate can be branded and rebranded as a flip-flopper or stiff (see Sen. John Kerry in 2004) or reckless and foolish (frequently part of the jabs at former President George W. Bush).

But not all late-night shows are the same. For some, politics is more than just the stuff of monologue one-liners; it’s a critical element to the program. Take, for instance, the late-night shows on Comedy Central, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. They thrive on politics. And when you look at who watches those shows through Patchwork Nation’s demographic/geographic county breakdown an interesting pattern emerges.

Both shows do well in places where the vote is solidly Democratic, collegiate Campus and Careers and big city Industrial Metropolis counties. And both shows underperform in reliably Republican counties like the small-town Service Worker Centers and the socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters.

But the Daily Show and the Colbert Report also have strong followings in the politically crucial, swing-voting Monied Burbs. In fact, viewership numbers in those 286 counties mirror the numbers from those more liberal counties, according to data from Experian Simmons.

That tells us a bit about the voters in those counties and about the impact of Mr. Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the 2012 campaign.

To be clear, late-night TV is not going to make or break this campaign. Even in the county types with highest viewership, less than 10% of adults tuned into The Daily Show or Colbert Report in a four-week period. (The numbers for the Late Show and Tonight Show are measured differently.)

But the viewership pattern is what’s interesting here, not the numbers.

Read the rest of this week's Politics Counts column on the Wall Street Journal's site.