"Will Saturday Night Live take down Trump?" Politico asked during the final weeks of the 2016 campaign. In terms of the election outcome, the answer is obvious. But did Alec Baldwin's merciless impersonation move the needle at all?
Recent research suggests it did not—and may have even been counterproductive. It turns out Donald Trump's much-mocked use of Twitter served as a highly effective counterpunch.
"At a minimum, Baldwin's impersonations, and Trump's social-media reactions, do not appear to be hurting the president," writes Amy Becker of Loyola University Maryland. "Trump's Tweets effectively transform SNL into Trump's humor—comedy that he can use to his strategic political advantage."
In the Journal of Political Marketing, Becker describes a study conducted in December of 2016, the month after the election. The participants, 329 Americans recruited online, were broken up into four groups.
The first watched a five-minute sketch featuring Baldwin as Trump which opened the December 3rd, 2016, broadcast of the program. The second watched the same clip and then looked at a screenshot of Trump's Twitter response, in which he complained it was "a totally one-sided, biased show—nothing funny at all."
The third group watched the clip and then read a Slate article about Trump's Twitter responses to the show. The final group watched an unrelated film clip. Afterwards, all participants reported their overall favorability toward Trump, Mike Pence, Hillary Clinton, and Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, using a one-to-100 "feeling thermometer."
Becker reports watching the clip did not significantly impact evaluations of Trump and Pence, regardless of whether participants also read Trump's tweets, or the story describing them. This late in the campaign, minds were pretty much made up, and portraying him as a buffoon wasn't going to rattle his supporters.
Another finding was more surprising—and, for Trump opponents, disturbing. It suggests Trump's pugnacious response to the skit negatively impacted feelings toward his opponents.
As Becker reports, "The average favorability ratings for both Clinton and Kaine were between 11-15 points lower among those who viewed the SNL skit and read the article detailing Trump's Twitter response," compared to those who saw just the skit, or were exposed to neither.
Exposure to his response apparently led participants "to interpret the skit in the same manner as Trump, finding the SNL parody to be just another pointed and biased media attack," she writes. And this increased hostility toward the Democratic ticket.
"Contrary to assumptions made in the popular press, perhaps it is Trump's reactionary message on Twitter that resonates more with viewers than the hostile humor underlying the post-election SNL parody," Becker concludes.
The results suggest television comedy must now be viewed in a new context, in which the subject of the satire can immediately respond to millions of followers. Trump appears to grasp this intuitively, which may explain why he refuses to stop tweeting, even with polls showing most Americans wish he would do so.
Becker concedes that Trump's response to Baldwin may have been "an off-the-cuff emotional response to being made fun of." But intentional or not, he helped his cause by weakening support for his opponents.
In hindsight, she writes, "Trump's engagement with Twitter seems less like a case of sour grapes, and more like a serendipitous strike against the Democratic opposition."