Now that his 2016 presidential campaign is finally officially underway, Jeb Bush has begun making public appearances. Last night he was a guest on "The Tonight Show," undergoing an interview with Jimmy Fallon and participating in the “Slow Jam The News” segment. Regardless of any political intent on behalf of NBC, Bush’s appearance on "The Tonight Show" certainly gives the former Florida governor an advantage in the Republican primary. The show remains one of the most popular on television, with a recent report of an average of 3.8 million nightly viewers.
In appearing on "The Tonight Show," Bush took a page out of the Obama playbook. The current president appeared in the same segment in 2012, using the platform to get across his message about student loans. It was a humorous way for the president to engage with his citizens about an important topic, and the official YouTube stream has received more than 11.5 million views. The top comment reads, “I[‘m] glad the president is cool enough to do this kind of stuff..” and many of the other comments from YouTube users around the world deliver the same type of message.
Compared to more politically outspoken late night hosts like David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon is soft. He’s much more likely to take the middle-ground, being friendly with his guests rather than antagonizing them. There’s a reason he got the job that Letterman could never get — the below clip of Letterman mocking Nastassja Kinski’s hairdo (via Grantland) would never fit on Fallon’s smiley, friendly show. It’s impossible to imagine someone like Bill Maher treating both Obama and Bush with equal amounts of respect, but Fallon isn’t there to take sides. Only Questlove has the courage to take a stance, as he did by playing Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” when Michelle Bachmann walked out during her presidential run. Last night’s show, however, basically gave Bush a platform to outline his campaign in front of a massive audience of American viewers without any provocation or truly hard-hitting questions at all.
The actual effect of late night appearances on presidential campaigns is difficult to define. Oberlin College’s Michael Parkin conducted a study in 2009 on that exact issue, examining how candidates have presented themselves to the public in the years since Bill Clinton’s infamous 1992 appearance on "The Arsenio Hall Show." Parkin’s study cites examples of how political appearances on late night shows can inform voters about certain issues, like John Kerry discussing the Iraq War on Letterman during his presidential run. “A late night candidate appearance can do more than leave viewers uninformed and overly image conscious,” Parkins writes. “In fact, the entertaining aspects of these exchanges can serve to engage viewers so that even if they have little initial political interest, they attend to the issue discussion that typically occurs during late night interviews. This helps viewers learn about political issues and makes certain policy considerations easily accessible so that they can be used by those who see them as relevant to their assessment of a presidential candidate.”
Bush’s “Slow Jam” segment will definitely introduce the candidate to "Tonight Show" viewers, revealing his ability to play along with the show’s sense of humor and make light of himself. Unlike Obama’s “Slow Jam” segment, however, Bush’s appearance didn’t really talk about any issues. It just told viewers that Bush was running for president, supports immigration and speaks Spanish. With so many candidates on the Republican side vying for an opportunity to get their message across to voters, soft media appearances like this one do not have a beneficial effect on the outcome of elections. If anything, Bush's appearance is a disgrace to Fallon and the integrity of "The Tonight Show." It's also another disappointing reminder of how powerful an effect the media has on modern elections.