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How Stephen Colbert taught Americans about Super PACs

Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert
Imeh Akpanudosen, Getty Images Entertainment

The Colbert Report is no longer with us, having aired its final episode last December. But though Stephen Colbert's show was primarily a comedy, a study out of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center found that, on one topic at least, his viewers actually learned quite a bit.

Back during election 2012, Colbert decided to give his viewers a crash course in our new, post-Citizens United campaign finance regime. In a series of hilarious segments, he formed a PAC, a Super PAC, a shadowy nonprofit group, and briefly announced his own candidacy.

In a later phone survey, after controlling for factors like general political knowledge and demographics, more frequent Colbert viewers were more likely to answer questions about campaign finance correctly. And the effect of Colbert viewership on these answers was stronger than viewership of CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, or the nightly news, according to the study by Bruce Hardy, Jeffrey Gottfried, Kenneth Winneg, and Kathleen Hall Jaimeson.

These are the issues where Colbert's viewers overperformed in their demonstration of knowledge, paired with the Colbert segments they may have learned from:

1) Super PACs can accept unlimited contributions

Colbert was very happy about this when real-life election lawyer Trevor Potter urged him to set one up:

COLBERT: "It therefore intends to raise individual, corporate, and labor funds in unlimited amounts! Oh, I like the sound of that! Unlimited’s got a certain poetry about it!"

2) Super PACs aren't allowed to coordinate with candidates

Therefore, after announcing his candidacy for president, Colbert handed his Super PAC over to someone he surely would never coordinate anything with — Jon Stewart:

COLBERT: "Colbert Super PAC is dead." 
STEWART: "But it has been reborn as: The definitely not coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC!"

3) Super PACs don't have to tell the IRS if they direct money to a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group

As phrased by the researchers, this was a bit of a trick question, since the process to evade this disclosure is rather convoluted and rarely-used. But it is possible, as Potter explained to Colbert here:

POTTER: "We'll do what the tax lawyers call an 'agency letter'..."
COLBERT: "...So I write a check from my SuperPAC, to my 501(c)(4), to my second, secret 501(c)(4) ... So what do I have to tell the IRS about what happened with this money?"
POTTER: "Nothing."

The takeaway

The study's authors have a few ideas about why Colbert's lessons might have stuck. "Colbert's treatment of this complex issue did not simply explain the complexities of new campaign finance regulations," they write. "His insertion into the campaign process and real interaction with the legal system, FEC, and mock candidacy allowed him to instruct as he entertained." Humor could also play a role — the authors summarize research showing that "when political information is presented within the context of humor, viewers will be more attentive, motivated, and engaged," which "will foster learning."

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