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SNL urges America to vote: Can new media affect voting?

Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon broke character to urge civic engagement in the last 'Saturday Night Live' before the election. But could the characters they play influence the election too? 

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Alec Baldwin, left, as Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, and Kate McKinnon, as Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, perform on the 42nd season of "Saturday Night Live," in New York. The actors stepped out of character Saturday, urging viewers to vote on Tuesday.

Will Heath/NBC via AP

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In its last episode before every presidential election, “Saturday Night Live” has always left audiences with one last, sharp criticism of the candidates. This year, Alec Baldwin, as Donald Trump, and Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton, broke tradition by breaking character in order to comment on civic engagement.

“None of this would have mattered if you don’t vote,” says Mr. Baldwin on Saturday.

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“We can’t tell you who to vote for, but on Tuesday we all get a chance to choose what kind of country we want to live in,” adds Ms. McKinnon.

Baldwin and McKinnon’s appeal is, perhaps, the first time cast members of “Saturday Night Live” have directly appealed to voters. With its clever spoofs, however, the late-night show has played a central role in shaping how Americans view candidates – from Chevy Chase’s portrayal of Gerald Ford as a klutz to Will Ferrell’s impersonation of George W. Bush.

Research has shown television, in general, has hurt voter turnout ever since it became a mainstay in American living rooms, offering voters a reason to not get off the couch and go to the polls.

This year, however, new media – from Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat to comedies likes “Saturday Night Live” and "Between Two Ferns" – has encouraged voter participation, especially among Millennials. But observers are unsure if participation and voter registration will translate to more ballots cast come Election Day.

Baldwin and McKinnon urged audiences to vote at the end of a hilarious finale to their season-long parody of the presidential elections. Actress Cecily Strong played Erin Burnett on CNN’s “OutFront,” and her interview of the candidates offered strong criticisms of Mr. Trump and the media’s coverage of him before Baldwin and McKinnon broke character.

Though ratings were not available for the episode by press time, the previous weeks’ show saw its best October ratings since 2008 and its best performance since November 2015, according to TV by the Numbers, a website that collects and analyzes US television ratings data. That episode began with a presidential debate moderated by actor Tom Hanks as Fox News’s Chris Wallace.

“Saturday Night Live” has appealed to a large audience this year, with a number of all-star cameos for its presidential skits. Baldwin was the latest award-winning actor to take part in the parodies. Comedian Larry David played Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, while Mr. Hanks imitated Fox News moderator Chris Wallace. The real Donald Trump even hosted an episode early in his presidential campaign.

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As other celebrities have hit the campaign trail in the lead up to Election Day, social media has also made a significant impact on voter registration, especially among Millennials who tend to use these platforms. Using hashtags such as #NationalVoterRegistrationDay, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and other platforms encouraged record voter registration across the country.

These campaigns were largely focused on Millennials, who make up 31 percent of the electorate, but have historically turned out in low numbers. A survey of 2,000 Millennials conducted by social media platform Yik Yak, known for its popularity among college students and teenagers, found 62 percent registered to vote for the first time this year. Of those who registered, 9 percent registered online through a social media prompt.

In California, a Facebook reminder on May 16 coincided with 143,255 people registering or updating their registrations online that day in the state, compared to an average of 23,166 per day that month, California Secretary of State spokesman Sam Mahood told Reuters. 

But experts are concerned all of this interest in the election won’t translate to strong voter turnout.

"In presidential elections the translation of new registration to votes is more like one half or one third," Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University, told Reuters.

But a last-minute appeal from Baldwin and McKinnon in addition to the appearance of pop stars such as Jay-Z and Beyonce onstage with Clinton this past week, could move some voters. The SNL skit could also affect how voters see the candidates, even if the show aims to be nonpartisan. 

Ever since Chevy Chase played President Ford, SNL has shaped public views of presidential candidates. In fact, the show has sometimes been more impactful in framing the personalities of the candidates than the candidates themselves, as Politico’s Shane Goldmacher writes. 

It was Will Ferrell as George W. Bush who coined ‘strategery,’ not Bush himself. And it was Tina Fey as Sarah Palin who claimed, “I can see Russia from my house,” not Palin. The skewering tradition dates all the way back to Chevy Chase’s 1976 portrayal of President Gerald Ford as a klutz, and Jon Lovitz’s disbelief, as Michael Dukakis in 1988, that “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.” In 2000, Al Gore’s own advisers made him watch Darrell Hammond’s stilted, stiff, sighing impersonation of his debate performances to show Gore how poorly he was coming off to others.

This has left some cast members wondering if their characters unintentionally influence outcomes.

Tina Fey raised the question in a 2003 interview.

“I loved Will Ferrell’s Bush impersonation, but sometimes I wonder if it might’ve helped Bush win the election," said Ms. Fey. "As much as we were making fun of Bush’s stupidity, Will also managed to make him seem almost charming and sweet.” 

This report contains material from Reuters. 


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