Would you ever have thought there could be anyone considered an expert on the political impact of late-night comedy shows on candidates? Us either, but that's the claim.

American University says Lauren Feldman is that expert and in her real job she is an assistant professor at American University’s School of Communication. Feldman did an analysis of the 2004 election and the results say Tina Fey’s humorous impersonations of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live (SNL) could be doing real damage to the McCain campaign in the 2008 election. Even if they aren't, it's a good rumor to start.

“When audiences are exposed to political humor or satire, they are less likely to oppose the information in the message or question whether it is fair or accurate,” says Feldman. “Relative to more traditional direct attacks in political ads, political jokes and other comedic portrayals that paint candidates in a negative light present greater opportunity for negative information to seep into the audiences’ consciousness. Ultimately, it can affect the perceptions of a candidate.”

Well, no kidding. It doesn't take an expert to figure out that because Fey’s sketches accentuate Palin’s folksy persona, her interview and debate performances, and her g-dropping, “gosh darnit” speaking style, they are likely to make Palin’s negative traits and image characteristics more top-of-mind for viewers.

That's why Fey does it. Most humor is negative in nature. Nonetheless, Feldman says, it can contribute to a more unfavorable rating of the McCain-Palin ticket.

It's also a no-win situation for the McCain campaign; comedians making fun of the way Obama speaks could be accused of racism but women making fun of Palin can't be accused of sexism. SNL treads very lightly on Obama in impersonations, even then affirming their favoritism when he says something outrageous, like that Obama supports terrorists because he is so far ahead it doesn't matter what he admits.

Slighting Palin's speaking style and exaggerating Obama's lead aren't indirect attempts, as Feldman says, they are direct. Fey herself says she intends to do these impersonations until the election and then hopes to never hear Palin's name again. Are any TV personalities saying that about Obama?

“The potential for this will only increase as the volume of exposure to these types of parodies and caricatures increases,” Feldman says. “This is important to consider given that SNL will be airing a series of prime-time specials during the next few weeks.”

So, will SNL swing the election? According to Feldman, probably not.

“It is also important to remember that the audience for SNL is not necessarily interested in politics, though much of the show’s recent boost in ratings is likely helped by political junkies tuning-in to see the latest Fey impersonation,” Feldman says. “At the very least, by making the campaign front-and-center in its sketches, SNL might help raise attention to the campaign among viewers who otherwise would ignore it.”

Palin has tried to capitalize on the attention being drawn to her by Fey's impersonations and has suggested she would enjoy making a cameo SNL appearance. Rumor has it she might turn up in an upcoming episode.

“It is not clear this would help Palin in the polls,” says Feldman, also a political communication expert. “Appearances on late-night comedy shows are useful for candidates as a means to project their non-political personas, to make them seem more ‘human’ and in-touch with voters. Palin is not necessarily lacking in these areas. She would benefit more from a strong, substantive performance in a more serious setting.”

For the record, Fey nails that Palin style.

Feldman is the coauthor of the article “Late-Night Comedy as a Gateway to Traditional News: An Analysis of Time Trends in News Attention among Late-Night Comedy Viewers During the 2004 Presidential Primaries” in the journal Political Communication.