A double-sided weapon: Nothing funny about being funny for GOP hopefuls

In a presidential race, being funny can be very serious.

Nothing humanizes a candidate like a good sense of humor. But there’s a balance to strike. Too many jokes and you might turn into one.

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In 2008, a little-known Mike Huckabee used sharp quips in the GOP primary debates to get the media and voters’ attention. Meanwhile, frontrunner Mitt Romney’s staid recitation of the hit record “Who Let the Dogs Out?” reinforced perceptions that the wealthy businessman was trying a little too hard to connect with an urban demographic. Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, ended up second in the race for the nomination, while former Massachusetts Gov. Romney dropped to third.

So how should a presidential candidate wield this double-sided weapon? 

Hynes Communications Vice President Liz Mair says presidential humor is about making a familial connection with voters, suggesting the refinement of a popular political adage.

“The old saying is that many voters … decide based on who they’d like to have a beer with, and the reality is, most people would rather have beer with Tina Fey.

“The objective,” Mair continues, “is to mix a little Tina Fey in, get people laughing and hopefully thinking, ‘This person seems all right.’ ”

But Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak warns candidates that they “want to be funny, but not too funny. You don’t want to be remembered for it.”

For example, no one wants to be New York gubernatorial candidate Jimmy “The Rent is Too Damn High” MacMillan, who became an Internet celebrity in 2010 with his hilarious debate performances. He was memorable — just not electable. 

Sarcasm

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin gets the blue ribbon here. She’s used sarcasm to attack nearly everyone — from President Obama to the Bushes to former Bush adviser Karl Rove. At a Tea Party conference last year, she delivered one of her most famous and sarcastic quips when she asked Obama voters: “How’s that hopey, changey stuff workin’ out?”

Her sarcasm has even extended to the barely printable. After Obama’s “Winning the Future” State of the Union address, Palin told Fox News: “His theme … was WTF — you know — winning the future, and I thought ‘OK, that acronym? Spot on. There were a lot of WTF moments throughout that speech.’”

And while comedians like Will Rogers and Jon Stewart have proven there’s always a place in politics for sarcasm, it might not be in the Oval Office or en route to it.

Brad Phillips, a media training expert and author of the Mr. Media Training blog, notes that since the era of 24/7 coverage began, making some laugh while others squirm hasn’t been a recipe for electoral success, since sarcasm tends to further anger those who already disagree with you.

That, he says, doesn’t bode well for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) or business mogul Donald Trump, whom Phillips claims border on surly.

Self-deprecation

This is a reliable way to generate a smile, and only mildly risky. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has proven particularly adept at the undersell. After being asked whether he viewed himself as a presidential candidate, he told C-SPAN: “There has never been a president of the United States in my bathroom mirror.”

And that bathroom mirror, he often notes, is unforgiving.

“If it comes down to height and hair, I guess we wouldn’t do too well,” the short, balding and soft-spoken Daniels said.

But there’s also a risk to self-deprecation. If you play up your downs too frequently, it’s possible to reinforce weaknesses. For example, Obama probably wouldn’t want to joke about his failure to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan. 

And last year, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) might have taken honesty a bit too far when the probable presidential candidate talked to an Iowa radio station.

“There’s nobody that really can be president, if you think about it. No one really qualifies for that job and if you really go out and you really want that job, I’m a little suspicious of you,” he said.

In effect, Santorum warned voters of Santorum, which is the logical end of all self-deprecatory humor.

Unscripted humor

Some candidates are unusually gifted at generating jokes out of thin air. Improv doesn’t just impress “Saturday Night Live” producers; it also gives voters the impression you’re intellectually alert, quick and smart. 

But since unscripted jokes haven’t been tested by speechwriters or focus groups, there’s a chance they could backfire. Plenty of jokes that sounded great at that political soiree last night don’t stand up to the sun or Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski in the morning.

Overall

Phillips is impressed by Huckabee’s and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s “natural” sense of humor, but says the rest of the field isn’t “exactly a barrel of laughs.” 

Indeed, the rest of the field might counter that these political times aren’t for laughing, though if they can’t crack a smile, the joke might be on them.

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.