This story originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of the Council’s monthly newsletter, Impact.

Political candidates (and everyone else in the persuasion business) are routinely advised to use humor to endear themselves to their audiences. But it’s tricky, as Hillary Clinton learned when she joked about launching a Snapchat account. “I love it,” she said. “Those messages disappear all by themselves.”

Republicans often fare no better when they try to make jokes — even ones they intend (as Clinton seems to have meant) to be self-deprecating. When Mitt Romney was seeking the presidential nomination in 2011, the fabulously wealthy Republican met with a group of laid-off Floridians. “I should tell my story,” he said when they finished telling theirs. “I’m also unemployed.”

Humor is seen as a way to humanize a candidate, which is why its deft use has become so important. David Letterman used to say “the road to the White House runs through me” — or, today, maybe, through Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Trevor Noah or, of course, “Saturday Night Live.”

Poke Fun at Yourself
Research conducted by Jody Baumgartner and colleagues at East Carolina University’s political science department and posted online by the Journal of Political Marketing in August 2015 puts some statistical substance to what might seem common-sense assumptions. One group of participants in the study watched a video clip of Letterman ridiculing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with a “Top Ten” list about Christie’s weight. The other group saw a clip of Christie on “Late Night” poking fun at himself by chomping on a donut while being interviewed.

Members of the first group expressed a lower evaluation of Christie and less likelihood of voting for him. But those in the second group had a higher evaluation of Christie and a greater likelihood of voting for him. “Making their own caricature a target of their jokes can often serve to help deflate negative perceptions,” the researchers found.

A related topic begs for future research. That’s the advisability of what Baumgartner et al., call “other-disparaging jokes” by political candidates themselves. That’s when politicians make fun of their opponents. Donald Trump’s campaign should offer ample material for discussion.

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