Colbert Bump

January 24, 2012

In Saturday's Republican presidential primary, Herman Cain came in fifth place with 1.1 percent of the vote. Cain, who dropped out of the race in December, outperformed the combined vote of all other candidates who dropped out. While Cain only received 45 votes in Iowa and 160 votes in New Hampshire, he garnered 6,324 votes in South Carolina. How did this happen? The "Colbert bump." Comedian Stephen Colbert, who tried unsuccessfully to get on the Democratic presidential primary ballot in South Carolina in 2008, recently announced he was launching an exploratory run for the Republican primary in South Carolina this year (the photo is one I took at the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" that Colbert led along with Jon Stewart). However, since the filing date for getting on the ballot had already passed and South Carolina does not allow write-in votes for the primary, Colbert decided to borrow a name on the ballot. Colbert told his fans in the Palmetto State to vote for Cain as a vote for Colbert. For much of the past year, Colbert has been hilariously pointing out the problems with SuperPACs and the nature of our campaigns since the Citizens United Supreme Court case in 2010. Just before the Iowa Straw Poll in August, the Colbert SuperPAC--known as "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow"--ran two hilarious ads urging people to write-in the name of "Rick Parry" (with an "a") at the same time supporters of Texas Governor Rick Perry (with an "e") were trying to get write-in votes for their their candidate (see the two Colbert SuperPAC ads here and here). The trick is that since write-in laws require counters to consider voter intent, misspellings are counted for the actual candidate. Thus, anyone writing-in "Rick Parry" would have their vote count for Rick Perry--even though in this case one would not know if the voter's intent was to vote for the real Rick Perry or jokingly vote for the fake "Rick Parry." What the ads demonstrated was how a SuperPAC could flood the airwaves to disrupt elections. Perry, by the way, came in sixth place in the Iowa Straw Poll--ahead of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who was actually on the ballot--by capturing 4.3 percent of the vote (an unprecedentedly strong showing for a write-in candidate in the Iowa Straw Poll). However, the Iowa Republican Party refused to release numbers indicating how many people wrote Perry's name with an "a." Perhaps that is why a couple of days before the Iowa Straw Poll the head of the group leading the real Rick Perry's write-in effort told me he was excited by Colbert's theatrics.

Then, earlier this month as Colbert decided to launch the presidential run, he had to give control of the SuperPAC to someone else since candidates are not allowed to coordinate with SuperPACs. He put his friend and fellow Comedy Central comedian Jon Stewart in charge, which gave them comical opportunities to push the boundaries on what it means to be coordinating or not. The Colbert SuperPAC--now led by Stewart--released several hilarious campaign ads. As with the Iowa ones, the South Carolina ads actually aired during TV commercial breaks along with other political ads. The first one--probably the best--was an over-the-top attack ad on Romney (see the ad here). The SuperPAC then ran an ad urging people to vote for Colbert by voting for Cain (see ad here). The group also released a couple of ads attacking the fact that SuperPACs can run attack ads by attacking candidates and SuperPACs (see ads here and here). The South Carolina ads are narrated by actors like John Lithgow, Mandy Patinkin, Sam Elliot, and Samuel L. Jackson. To add to the ads, Colbert even held a rally last week in Charleston--with Cain! At the rally, Colbert mocked confessional politics by invoking God (and had publicly prayed on this TV show to claim God wanted him to run). Responding to the claim that the rally and overall presidential effort was merely a "joke," Colbert declared at the rally:

I say, if they are calling being allowed to form a super PAC and collect unlimited, untraceable amounts of money from individuals, unions, and corporations; and spend that money on political ads and for personal enrichment; and then surrender that super PAC to one of my closest friends while I explore a run for office; if that is a joke, then they are saying our entire campaign finance system is a joke!
It is a great point that summarizes his overall SuperPAC effort of the last several months (you can see most of the Colbert-Cain rally here). In an age of broken politics, it takes the court jester to speak the truth.