It has become so standard for presidential candidates to visit all kinds of TV shows to grab the attention of all kinds of voters that as President Obama heads to an MTV forum on Friday, it's more notable who's not going along: Mitt Romney.
On Wednesday, Obama visited with Jay Leno on his late-night chat show; last week he sat down with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.
That's not to mention his appearances last month on David Letterman and The View, or his April slow-jamming the news with late-night host Jimmy Fallon.
Romney's last entertainment show appearance was on Live with Kelly and Michael in September, accompanied by Ann Romney, where he seemed at ease chatting about TV shows and other topics. But two weeks ago, he scrubbed a plan to accompany his wife on The View. He last appeared on Leno in March and hasn't been on Letterman since 2011, when he appeared twice to read Top Ten lists.
Candidates dating back to Bill Clinton, who played his saxophone on Arsenio Hall in 1992, have gone on entertainment shows to demonstrate their charm in an informal, fun setting with a generally friendly interviewer, and to get in front of voters who may not be paying attention to the news. John McCain, Al Gore, and John McCain all sat on talk-show couches as candidates. In 2000, George Bush appeared on Letterman via satellite. "The road to the Washington runs through me," Letterman told him.
For candidates wives, the appearances are more frequent: Ann Romney has appeared with Leno and Rachael Ray and Michelle Obama has chatted with Letterman and done push-ups with Ellen DeGeneres.
Letterman has joked about not being able to get Romney on the show. Executive producer Rob Burnett says both Romneys and vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan have been invited. "Dave would love to chat with them. I don't know what the problem is," Burnett says. "There's not a lot better use of your time than sitting down next to Dave at this point in things. Dave is culturally relevant, people trust him, he's funny but also smart and will ask good questions."
Obama, while comfortable with the jokey nature of chat shows, has gotten himself in trouble: he was criticized for referring to the deaths of Americans in Libya as "not optimal" on the Daily Show, and in 2009, he apologized for making a disparaging reference to the Special Olympics during a Leno interview.
Entertainment shows are also risky because while the questions may seem frivolous, they are harder to predict than those in a news interview, said Jack Pitney, politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. "News reporters and campaign media people actually speak the same language. They can pretty much read each others' minds."
The first candidate to dip a toe into potentially wacky waters was Richard Nixon, who made a cameo on Laugh In - speaking the show's trademark "Sock it to me" line - shortly before the 1968 election,
"The only potential downside is appearing to be less than serious at a time when voters want their candidates and presidents to be more serious," says Daniel Schnur, who in 2000 was communications director for John McCain. That may be the Romney view: in September, the Romney campaign criticized Obama for appearing on The View instead of meeting with world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly. And in a speech at a fundraiser - the surreptitiously recorded video that made headlines when Romney said he saw 47% of Americans as dependent on government - Romney said he had turned down Saturday Night Live because it "has the potential of looking slapstick and not presidential."
If Romney is missing out on an opportunity to bond with potential voters who get their political news from Jon Stewart, Obama may be spending time talking to too broad an audience, Pitney says. Since the election hangs on voters in a handful of swing states, "The question is whether Obama would get more benefit for the time spent if he were actually in Ohio and doing local TV."
"You can run a viable candidacy without doing a lot of late night comedy and daytime chat shows,"says Robert Thompson, a professor of television at Syracuse University. "If you assess that you have certain skills and don't have certain skills, it may be to your advantage to avoid them."
Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY