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.

I put Ron Paul in a separate category of “protest candidate,” but he should be sweating, too. Paul’s supporters are among the most passionate and committed this cycle. But their profile is similar to that of  the voters Colbert might attract. (“Pot smokers,” a Republican consultant called them.) Anonymous presidential advisor: “If Colbert wants to do it he’s got to convert every young, semi-liberal Ron Paul supporter to the Colbert cause. If a young white male is going to vote, watches Comedy Central, and is internet savvy, chances are he’s a Ron Paul supporter.”

Finally, there are the frontrunners. No consultant I could find gave Colbert much chance of doing any of them harm—except in special circumstances, which I’ll get to in a moment. Among top Democrats, Obama depends most heavily on young voters, so he’d theoretically have something to lose. One South Carolina pollster checked his crosstabs and reported that the top four Republicans—Giuliani, Thompson, McCain, and Romney—all draw young-voter support at a level proportional to their overall support. So unless Colbert holds an unexpectedly powerful appeal to, say, South Carolinians-for-Romney, he probably won’t threaten the top tier. The political pros all think that Colbert voters, if any materialize, will be people who aren’t currently planning to vote in the primary.

Here things get a little more interesting. I can’t point to anything other than truthiness, but I believe the “drunken college student” demographic is being overlooked. Anecdotal evidence lends support. “I’m surprised how many students seem to get their news from Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert,” Blease admitted. “In the grand tradition of student mischief, you could see Colbert having a pied-piper effect.” Indeed, state law doesn’t require voters to register until 30 days before the primary, so there’s plenty of time for a Colbert wave to sweep South Carolina. And because South Carolina doesn’t have party registration, the independents—who, according to Scarborough Research, are Comedy Central’s largest voter demographic, narrowly beating out Democrats—can vote in either primary.

The real threat to the rest of the field is the possibility that Colbert might win a delegate or two (and show up at one or both of the national conventions). Doing so won’t be easy. Republican delegates are awarded in each of the state’s six congressional districts on a winner-take-all basis, with additional delegates given to the overall state winner. So Colbert would have to crack 50 percent in at least one congressional district. The Democratic primary offers an easier path. You only have to get 15 percent of the vote in a congressional district to qualify for delegates.

For Colbert to have a chance at landing a delegate, he’ll need a campaign manager and a clever strategy. I wouldn’t want Colbert to have to settle for Bob Shrum—and I think my editors would permit me a leave of absence—so with help from Scott Huffmon, a hip and highly indulgent political science professor from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, here is a double-barrel Colbert campaign plan. In the Republican primary, Colbert should focus on the First District, which stretches along the coast from Colbert’s hometown of Charleston up to Myrtle Beach. Besides being most likely to respond to the “native son” gambit, the heavily conservative district’s voters tend to be upscale economic conservatives rather than social conservatives (Colbert’s appeal is stronger with the first group). The district also encompasses plenty of colleges and universities, including the Citadel, where Colbert’s “patriotism” might yield votes, provided no one spots the scare quotes. The district also has a pronounced weakness for political gimmicks. Its congressman, Republican Henry Brown, got elected in 2000 after distributing 20,000 “Oh Henry!” candy bars to boost name recognition.

In the Democratic primary, Colbert’s best bet is the Second District, which encompasses most of the capital city of Columbia, and, more important, has the highest concentration of college students. Though it’s less Democratic than the Sixth District, it has a far higher proportion of white voters, which, in a Democratic primary, is exactly who Colbert needs to target. Even better, Columbia is its own media market. Colbert probably won’t have Obama-like fundraising prowess. But an Internet campaign ought to be able to raise enough cash to run a few well-targeted ads (here again the drunken-college-student demographic could prove valuable).

Of course, there’s a drawback to vanity candidacies—vanidacies?—which is why we don’t see more of them. And that is the danger that the celebrity on the ballot could bomb. Yes, actors like Reagan and Schwarzenegger have done just fine; but campaigning comedians have tended to wind up as punch lines. In the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election, Gary Coleman won a less-than-pint-sized total of 14,242 votes and placed eighth. In the 1996 Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire, former Smothers Brother Pat Paulsen won 920 votes (enough to earn him a second-place finish to a sitting president, Bill Clinton). Given the meager caliber of his predecessors, there would seem to be considerable pressure on Colbert to outperform them and land a delegate or two.

I’ve advanced the cause of hope and freedom as far as I can for a Friday afternoon. But any political types who would like to help refine Colbert’s campaign strategy can email suggestions to me: If I get anything good, I’ll post an update. And who knows? If Colbert gets in, I might need a deputy.