Dispatch October 2007

The Colbert Notion

Stephen Colbert plans to run for president in South Carolina. Here's a campaign strategy—and a list of who should worry

Stephen Colbert’s plan to run for president may be just another exercise in “truthiness.” But what the hell. Given the dozens of candidates, the wide open field, and the lack of a primary calendar, Colbert’s gut is telling him that “the people cry out for a hero,” and that they might settle for him. That was enough for me to ponder his electoral chances after he declared on Wednesday’s “Colbert Report” that he’ll enter the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries in South Carolina next year. This Times article suggests he’d have an easy enough time getting on both ballots. So what if he does?

To figure out candidate Colbert’s impact on the race, you first need to identify what kind of person might support him. To my knowledge, not even John Zogby has polled Colbert’s presidential numbers. Until someone does, we’ll make do with the next best thing: Nielsen ratings. Colbert’s viewers tend to be young, white, educated, and male. Their median age is 37 and there’s a 60/40 male-female split. So far this year, he’s drawn a nightly audience that averages 1.3 million viewers nationwide, 874,000 of them in the 18-49 year-old demographic. (Research leaked to me by Will Feltus, a national ad buyer, shows that Colbert’s viewers are the same demographic targeted by beer marketers: men ages 18 to 34 who are “above-average consumers of adult beverages.”) How many of them live in South Carolina? The U.S. Census bureau says South Carolina has about 1.4 percent of the nation’s population, which would suggest that Colbert has about 12,200 viewers there. Not huge numbers. But let’s remember that primaries tend to draw fewer, but more highly motivated, voters than general elections. And let’s assume that Colbert’s viewers—pardon me, his “heroes”—are highly motivated and will turn out in force for their man.

The next step is to identify how many of them live (and are registered to vote) in South Carolina. For help, I turned to Professor Blease Graham of the University of South Carolina, and to Sam Wellborn, a graduate student at the school’s Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, who shared survey data on the state’s voters. Suffice it to say that Graham is not persuaded of Colbert’s electoral reach in the Palmetto State. “If this were the high school operetta,” he told me, “Colbert would be the amusement at intermission to keep the audience from straying in the second half.”

Good sport that he is, Graham crunched the numbers anyway. About 2.4 million people voted in the last presidential election, only a fraction of whom will vote in the primaries. Graham estimated that about 600,000 will turn out for the Republican primary and about 350,000 for the Democratic primary. Colbert’s focus is on younger voters. Graham made a back-of-the-envelope calculation that 260,000 people between the ages of 18 and 44 will vote in both primaries: 169,000 in the Republican primary and 91,000 in the Democratic primary. That’s Colbert’s target. But to guess how he might fare, it’s necessary to examine a few more variables.

Colbert’s viewers are assumed to be mostly liberals. So let’s look first at the Democratic primary. It doesn’t look great for Colbert. Roughly speaking, 70 percent of South Carolina voters are white, and about 30 percent are black. But most black voters are Democrats, and about half the state’s Democratic primary electorate is black—not Colbert’s audience. Another problem: old people. A consultant to one of the major presidential candidates (all of the consultants I interviewed watch “Colbert,” all of them speculated about his prospects, and none of them would go on the record) pointed out that Democratic primary voters are seriously old—older, on average, than Republican primary voters and especially old in South Carolina. That’s not Colbert’s audience either. The same applies to gender. The Democratic primary electorate skews female, more so in South Carolina than elsewhere.

Colbert might fare better in the Republican primary. According to one presidential advisor, the South Carolina Republican electorate is “monolithically white, much more male than female, and younger” than the Democratic electorate—all good news for Colbert. As a rule of thumb, younger voters tend to be more liberal than older voters. But in South Carolina, younger voters are more conservative than their counterparts elsewhere. Factor in “Reaganiness,” and things could really get interesting.

The next question is: Which presidential candidates might be threatened by a Colbert candidacy? The obvious group is second-tier competitors, because if Colbert runs more than a “front-porch” campaign—if he actually shows up and holds a few rallies—he’ll suck up the media buzz any laggard needs to break through. Sam Brownback may cite other reasons for dropping out today, but Colbert’s plan to run in South Carolina wouldn’t have made his job there any easier. Same is true for Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Mike Huckabee.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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