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Was Sarah Palin’s Image Hurt By Tina Fey? You Betcha!

• March 08, 2012 • 2:18 PM

New research suggests exposure to Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin in 2008 lowered voters’ opinion of the candidate.

The new HBO movie Game Change, which revisits the 2008 presidential campaign, includes a scene in which Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin watches Tina Fey impersonate her on Saturday Night Live. While that was surely a surreal experience for the Alaska governor, the bigger question is: Did Fey’s spot-on mimicry affect how the rest of us viewed her?

Newly published research suggests it did — to the detriment of her party. It finds young adults who watched the NBC comedy series’ Palin parodies were more likely than non-viewers to hold negative views of her.

Importantly, this “Fey Effect” was restricted to Republicans and independent voters. For Democrats, Fey’s impersonation merely confirmed their already-negative impression of Palin. But among young Republicans, it seems to have actually changed some minds.

Political scientists Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan Morris of East Carolina University used data from a series of online surveys of 18- to 24-year-olds, who were recruited from universities across the country. They specifically looked at one survey conducted from Sept. 15-25, 2008, and another conducted Oct. 24 through Nov. 2.

The surveys contained two identical questions measuring views of Palin: “Do you approve or disapprove of John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate?” and “Does John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin make you more likely to vote for McCain, less likely, or won’t it make any difference?”

When the first survey was taken, Saturday Night Live had already aired its first Fey-as-Palin skit (on Sept. 13). Five more followed, including a parody of the Oct. 2 vice-presidential debate, which aired on the Oct. 4 show.

Those filling out the second survey were asked whether they had seen coverage of the debate. Those who answered yes were given a list of 20 media sources, including SNL, and instructed to indicate where they had seen reports on the topic.

Fifteen percent (a total of 255 participants) reported they had seen the comedy show’s debate coverage, which featured Fey.

“In the weeks following her appearance in the vice-presidential debate, overall approval for John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin dropped from 40 to 31 percent in our sample, while disapproval increased from 39 to 55 percent,” the researchers note. “Was this drop related to viewing the SNL skit?”

After controlling for other relevant factors — party identification, ideological orientation, political knowledge, and overall media exposure — the researchers found watching Fey had indeed made a difference.

“An individual who had seen the spoof had an 8.5 percent probability of approving, and a 75.7 percent probability of disapproving, the Palin choice,” the researchers report. For those who hadn’t watched SNL, those numbers were 16.1 percent and 60.1 percent, respectively.

In other words, views toward Palin were quite negative across the board, but these feelings were significantly more pronounced among those who had watched SNL’s sketches.

A similar gap was found in responses to the second question. Those who had seen Fey’s impersonation had a 45.4 percent probability of saying that Palin’s nomination made them less likely to vote for McCain. For those who did not see it, that number was 34 percent.

Further analysis revealed Fey’s parody produced “a significant negative effect among self-identified Republicans and independents, but not among Democrats,” the researchers write. “The non-effect among Democrats was likely because, by this point in the campaign, they had already formed negative opinions about Palin, so exposure to the skit did not worsen their already low opinions.”

Baumgartner and Morris conclude that “it seems unlikely” that Palin’s impersonation affected the election outcome, given the many elements that go into making up voters’ minds. And they acknowledge that this survey is of a specific demographic, which is younger and better-educated than the average American.

But their study is nonetheless a cautionary tale for candidates in this year’s election. It suggests being defined by a comedian is hazardous to your political health—and not because it inspires your opponents. Rather, it appears to dim the assessment of those who should be your natural supporters.

Is that a problem? You betcha.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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