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Political Candidates Beware: It May be Dangerous to Tell a Joke

We advised you to vote for the depressed candidate or the laughing candidate, but on the campaign trail, humor may be in the eyes of the viewers. When presidential candidates poke fun at themselves or at opponents, viewers take away different impressions of the humor and of the candidates, based on previously held opinions.

During the 2008 election season, political scientist Patrick A. Stewart studied how viewers evaluated humorous comments by candidates. He used humorous comments delivered by presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain in a non-partisan venue, the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner to benefit Catholic charities, held just 19 days before the election. He found that previously held opinions about the candidates influenced participants’ evaluations of the humorous comments. In turn, the evaluations of the humor influenced how participants saw both the source and the target of the humor.

He says, "Pre-existing candidate evaluation plays the strongest role in the equation." The more positively participants rated a candidate's likeability, intelligence, honesty, compassion and electability, the higher they rated the candidate’s humorous comment in terms of it making sense, being playfully told and being funny. In the end, a candidate's sense of humor made little change in how participants evaluated them. So candidates are advised to play it safe, and can the humor during speeches and debates.

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