Stewart-Colbert Rally: Just Comedy or Real Politics?

WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of people are expected to flood the National Mall on Saturday for the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear — which raises the question, so what?

Is this event mere entertainment, a gathering of mainly young fans of the two Comedy Central satirists on a golden autumn day in the nation’s capital?

Or does it have real political significance, coming three days before important midterm congressional elections?

Or is it, like the two comic’s TV shows, a blend of politics and entertainment that’s difficult to define by conventional labels?

Whatever it turns out to be, few political analysts see the event as likely to prod more young people to vote three days later.

“My basic judgment is that it’s irrelevant,” said Curtis Gans, a veteran Washington-based expert on voter turnout.

The three-hour rally on the national mall, which is scheduled to begin at noon, undoubtedly will have political overtones, even though its hosts insist that they’re satirists, not political figures. President Barack Obama had warm praise for the rally during a Richmond, Va., campaign appearance last month, and appeared on Stewart’s show Wednesday.

Organizers appear to be trying to keep partisan politics out of the program. The schedule features actors and musicians, most not usually associated with political movements. Stewart and Colbert’s shows tend to skewer whoever’s in power, and especially the mainstream media, and the hosts insist their purpose isn’t political.

“Ours is a rally for the people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs) — not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority,” according to a statement from the organizers.

“If we had to sum up the political view of our participants in a single sentence . . . we couldn’t. That’s sort of the point.”

Still, liberal groups will be active on the fringes, trying to tap into the crowds.

Organizing for America, the grassroots effort that helped elect Obama, is sponsoring a “Phone Bank to Restore Sanity” after the rally at the nearby Democratic National Committee headquarters. Rock the Vote, which promotes political participation by the under-30 generation, calls the event the “Rally of a Generation” on its blog.

“Politically, this is a big public service announcement for turning out the vote,” said Maegan Carberry, a Rock the Vote spokeswoman.

Media Matters and NARAL Pro-Choice America also plan to be present, looking to recruit supporters.

Rallies and related events will also be held in more than 1,000 other cities around the world, as people can watch live coverage via satellite and computer. The event could also have broader significance after Election Day if it becomes a catalyst for future mobilizations of young, largely Democratic voters.

“This could be the left’s tea party,” said Michael Munger, a professor of political science at Duke University. The tea party movement has helped several Republicans win nomination fights this year for congressional seats.

The hope of political organizers is that the Saturday rally motivates voters younger than 30, whose turnout numbers are expected to drop next week from their 2008 highs, as is normal in midterm elections without the sizzle of presidential candidates on the ballot.

People 29 and under turned out in big numbers in 2008, when 52 percent of them voted, and preferred Obama by more than 2 to 1.

Historically those numbers drop in midterm elections. In 2006, 25.5 percent voted, and experts expect a similar turnout Tuesday.

“They’re disillusioned,” said Gans, the director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. He said young people see American involvement continuing in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, while jobs remain hard to get, and that’s drained their enthusiasm for politics.

In addition, Gans said, “Obama’s not running.”

However, there’s a large corps of young people eager to stay involved in politics, and for them, Saturday’s rally could be “positive reinforcement” that lasts beyond the election, Munger said.

In a Pew Research Center survey done June 8-28, 10 percent of Americans said they get the “latest headlines” from Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” Forty-three percent said they turn to the show mostly for entertainment, while 2 percent liked its “in-depth reporting” and 20 percent liked it for a variety of reasons.

Michael Dimock, a Pew associate director, said only a “tiny slice” of people go to the show for the latest news. “The regular ‘Daily Show’ viewer overwhelmingly sees it as a source of opinion and entertainment,” he said.