Tina Fey's signature red suit and faux Alaskan accent were hard to miss in 2008.
This election year, the next star political imitator on "Saturday Night Live" may be Jay Pharoah, the show's newly anointed portrayer of President Barack Obama, taking over the role from fellow cast member Fred Armisen. And as "SNL" continues its jabs at candidates' idiosyncrasies in the weeks ahead, at least one expert says those depictions could affect voting behavior.
Mike Dabadie, co-founder of Virginia-based Heart + Mind Strategies, a nonpartisan research group, conducted a survey on Election Day 2008 to see how "SNL" skits may have influenced the electorate.
Dabadie found that 66 percent of voters had seen the sketches portraying Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin; her running mate, John McCain; Obama; and his running mate, Joe Biden. With increased recognition of the "SNL" brand of political humor, that number could rise this election season, Dabadie said.
Because many voters may have already decided for whom they'll vote, Dabadie said the greatest potential impact is on independent voters. About 12 percent of registered independents who had seen the "SNL" skits in 2008 said the impersonations made them less likely to vote for McCain and Palin. Four percent said the same of Obama and Biden. In swing states, 14 percent of voters who had seen the sketches said they were less likely to vote for McCain and Palin, while 6 percent were less likely to vote for Obama and Biden.
"The campaigns are fighting over a smaller, switchable group of voters," Dabadie said. "In a tight election like 2008 — and in a tight election like this one — (candidate portrayals) can have a substantial impact."
But Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said the comedy bits would likely affect voters only if some unknown attribute is revealed.
"Take Will Ferrell doing George W. Bush: That was hysterical," Thompson said. "But I don't know that any undecided voter would sway because of that. I can't imagine anybody who's going to vote would say, 'Oh, I didn't realize he was like this.'"
Although Pharoah "has mastered some really subtle ticks" of the president, Thompson said, he likely won't influence voters as much as Fey did in 2008.
Dabadie said the skills of the actors matter too.
"The extent to which the actor is making a connection to the person he or she's trying to portray matters," Dabadie said. "If the actor isn't coming across as funny or genuine, it won't have as big of an impact."