US 2016 Elections

Want to be taken seriously in US politics? Be funny

A tweet featuring a video of Senator Ted Cruz accidentally punching and elbowing his wife in the face was retweeted 21,000 times.
A tweet featuring a video of Senator Ted Cruz accidentally punching and elbowing his wife in the face was retweeted 21,000 times.PHOTO: YOUTUBE

Politicians realising power of humour in attracting voters - but jokes can backfire

Dropping out of a hard-fought presidential race isn't normally a laughing matter, but when Texas senator Ted Cruz suspended his bid for the White House last week, the jokes flowed.

Social media lit up with little insults and memes that have dogged Mr Cruz throughout his campaign.

"Zodiac Killer" - the name of a 1960s serial murderer who bears a likeness to Mr Cruz - started trending on Twitter in the United States; videos of the senator's clumsy hand clasp with his running mate Carly Fiorina were distributed widely; and a tweet featuring a video of Mr Cruz accidentally punching and elbowing his wife in the face was retweeted 21,000 times.

In a way, the jokes were a fitting send-off for a campaign that turned into a demonstration of the influence jokes and memes have on modern politics. In an era when more and more people are turning to "softer" sources like comedy entertainment shows for their news, humour is starting to play a bigger part in politics.

Mr Aaron Kall, the director of debate at the University of Michigan, said candidates are now so aware of the influence of humour that they make it a point to appear on shows like Saturday Night Live or The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. "They know it helps make them seem like they are more a part of the joke than merely being the butt of the joke."


  • "They say Donald lacks the foreign policy experience to be president, but in fairness, he has spent years meeting with leaders from around the world - Miss Sweden, Miss Argentina, Miss Azerbaijan." 

    US President Barack Obama, referring to businessman Donald Trump's previous ownership of the Miss Universe pageant. 

    "You've come a long way in 72 years. Seventy-two years ago, a woman could not be part of the American experience - and if you don't vote, that's coming back in 2017... But look how far you've come.The most dishonest person in America is a woman who is about to be president, how can that be?" 

    Republican Senator Lindsey Graham taking a shot at both Mr Trump's poor record on women's rights and perceptions that Mrs Hillary Clinton is dishonest. 

    "Ted Cruz? An inspiration to every kid in America who worries that he'll never be able to run for president because nobody likes him." 

    Vice-President Joe Biden on Mr Cruz's unpopularity. 

    "Well, I'm anticipating he'll ask me to be vice-president." 

    Mr Biden when asked about who would be Mr Trump's pick. 

    "I dislike Obama's policies more but Donald is a unique individual ... If I were in my car and getting ready to reverse and saw Donald in the back-up camera, I'm not confident which pedal I'd push." 

    Senator Ted Cruz joking about running over Mr Trump. 

    "You know there's this joke going around the Internet that Ted Cruz is actually the Zodiac Killer. Right? I'm not making that up. Come on, that's absurd. Some people actually liked the Zodiac Killer." 

    Comedian Larry Wilmore on jokes about Mr Cruz being a serial killer from the 1960s.

Still, jokes can hurt.

"Humour can help shape our understanding of the political world," wrote George Mason University communications professor Robert Lichter and his two co-authors in the book Politics Is a Joke!: How TV Comedians Are Remaking Political Life. "Pre-existing negative images, beliefs, perceptions, truths and half-truths about the political realm are picked up and propagated even further by late night comics who, in turn, likely help to strengthen these impressions." And the damage can even come from the candidates themselves, through poorly pitched attempts to be funny.

On Thursday, during the Mexican festival of Cinco De Mayo, businessman Donald Trump tweeted a photo of himself eating a taco bowl in a bid to show his goofier side while also reaching out to Hispanics.

"Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!" he wrote.

The tweet was quickly mocked for being patronising and tone deaf, especially given the many insults Mr Trump has hurled at Mexican immigrants throughout his campaign.

Stand-up comic W. Kamau Bell tweeted: "Not only is this racist, IT IS ALSO EMPIRICALLY NOT TRUE! Best taco bowls in Trump Tower?"

Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton also had her own slip-up when she tried a joke involving the term CPT or coloured people time, which refers to the stereotype of African Americans always being late.

The joke fell flat and became fodder for President Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents' Dinner last week. " I know I was a little late tonight. I was running on CPT, which stands for jokes that white people should not make."

But while both Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton have been able to move on from those incidents, the humour aimed at Mr Cruz seems to have stuck. Over and over again, jokes are being made about just how unlikeable he is.

Mr Cruz's Senate colleague Lindsey Graham arguably landed one of the most memorable blows when he joked about the senator's "murder" during a speech in Washington. "If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you," he said, implying that Mr Cruz was so disliked that a jury made up of his Senate peers would not punish his killer.

Ultimately, however, experts say it is almost impossible to tell what will work and what won't. And as the campaign moves on to a straight fight between Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump, most expect him to be better at harnessing humour.

"Normally if you are the underdog, you are a little bit more unconventional, you're trying different things to change the narrative. And he is the underdog now, so I think we'll see Mrs Clinton more reserved," said Mr Kall.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Want to be taken seriously in US politics? Be funny'. Print Edition | Subscribe