Study: Jon Stewart leaving ‘Daily Show’ helped Trump win presidency

It's no joke.

  • A new study used Comedy Central ratings and political survey data to examine whether the departure of Jon Stewart from "The Daily Show" had a causal effect on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
  • The researchers found that it had a 1.1 percent effect on voter turnout, an amount that could've proved decisive in such a narrow election.
  • The researchers used causal language in the study, but cautioned that Stewart's departure was one of many factors that decided the election.

Jon Stewart was once asked to describe his importance as a political commentator on The Daily Show. He replied: "On a scale of zero to 10, I'd go with a zero, not very important."

That was dead wrong, according to a new study that suggests Stewart's 2015 departure from the left-leaning show caused not only a drop in ratings, but also a slight drop in voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election – enough to tip the scales in favor of President Donald Trump.

It sounds like a wild claim. But study authors Ethan Portera and Thomas J. Wood pointed to past research showing that many Americans who aren't politically engaged often consume news from comedy sources, in particular from "The Daily Show". Other research shows that audiences are more likely to view political figures and issues in a more favorable light when presented in a comedic context, rather than, say, on a network news show. So, considering Jon Stewart's replacement Trevor Noah has received lower ratings and fewer viewers, it stands to reason that some Americans were less inclined to get out and vote Democrat in 2016.

The researchers suggest Stewart's key influence over the nation was to mobilize voters, not necessarily to make liberal converts out of conservatives.

"'The Daily Show's' ratings decline was negatively associated with voter turnout — suggesting that Stewart's role in the election is understood in relationship to mobilization, rather than persuasion."

The study authors also examined Stephen Colbert's departure from his eponymous show in 2014, finding similar but weaker effects. To conduct their analysis, the researchers used data from the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) and extensive ratings data for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, The Colbert Report, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Key and Peele, South Park, and Inside Amy Schumer.

Using a 'difference in differences' statistical approach, the analysis incorporated socioeconomic controls – including educational attainment, racial composition, and income — and also controlled for the general decline of all Comedy Central shows during this period. The results showed that only The Daily Show seemed to have influenced voter behavior in the 2016 presidential election.

"By our estimate, the ratings decline at The Daily Show was associated with a 1.11 percentage point increase in Republican presidential vote share at the county level, significant by conventional standards," adding that the observations "cannot be explained away by broader trends in cable and Comedy Central."

Credit: Wood & Portera

It seems a small but influential share of Stewart's audience might've been a decisive factor in the election.

"... as previous studies have shown, the viewers Stewart and Colbert most affected were otherwise politically disengaged and uninformed," the researchers wrote. "As Zaller (2004) demonstrates, such voters are precisely the most likely voters to shift partisan allegiances between presidential elections. When the shows' ratings declined and those viewers went elsewhere, their politics likely changed as a result."

Although the study authors suggest that Jon Stewart's departure was causal in the outcome of the 2016 election, they do note that it wasn't the only factor.

"Stewart's departure and the decline in ratings data, we contend, was one among many factors that possibly contributed to the surprising election result of 2016," they wrote.

What about "The Colbert Report"?

Why did Colbert's Comedy Central show not seem to have the same effects as Stewart's?

One reason might be the peculiar mechanics of satire and parody. Audiences of The Colbert Report might have been able to enjoy the satire no matter their politics; Republicans might've been able to laugh at the tongue-in-cheek jokes delivered by Colbert's hard-right character, while Democrats might've laughed because they felt "in" on the joke. Here's how the study authors described it:

"While The Daily Show was unflappably sincere in its political and partisans commitments, The Colbert Report was entirely satirical," the authors wrote. "Decoding the humor and parsing out the political content of the latter likely required a great deal more political sophistication than the former. Not watching The Colbert Report may have depressed one's interest in politics generally; but not watching The Daily Show may have depressed one's interest in supporting the Democratic Party, and opposing the Republican Party, specifically."

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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