Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.