Some fascinating new polling data has surfaced on the most intriguing political battle of our time. Harvard’s Institute of Politics conducted an online survey of the shows’ key demographic – 18- to 24-year-olds – and amidst the more trivial topics (electoral preferences, America’s fall as a superpower, etc.), the poll finally gave us some insight into one of the most perplexing issues of our time: Who’s better, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert?

Here’s the overall result:
Jon Stewart 30%
Stephen Colbert 26%
Neither 28%
Never heard of ’em 16%

Stephen Colbert & Jon StewartBeyond the immediate analysis – which boils down to “Get your asses out of the library and turn on the TV, you 16-percenters!” – the mini-demographic breakdowns are fascinating. For example, men go for The Daily Show by a 7% margin, while women narrowly choose The Colbert Report. (It’s gotta be the hair.) The younger portion of the sample, 18- and 19-year-olds, favor Colbert by a 16-point margin, while the 22- to 24-year-olds favor Stewart in similar numbers. In between are the college juniors and seniors, whose parents obviously are no longer getting their money’s worth education-wise; those slackers are partial to both shows in equal numbers.

Young adults who are following the election closely favor Stewart, 46-33; those who aren’t choose Colbert, 31-25. (Note that almost half of those who aren’t paying attention to the race either state no preference or aren’t watching late-night Comedy Central; to them, of course, we can only say, “Pick a side, we’re at war!”)

The most intriguing statistics, however, are those related to political persuasion. Stewart is the choice of Democrats by a 43-31 margin; more specifically, among self-identified “traditional liberals” Stewart’s lead is 52-27. Among young Republicans, on the other hand, Colbert holds a 49-21 advantage, and he holds a whopping 43-9 lead among folks the poll identifies as “Religious Centrists.” That latter category includes people who are socially conservative but (mostly) liberal on economic issues, and who (for the most part) say religion holds an important place in their lives. In a fascinating twist, those same “Religious Centrists” favor Barack Obama over John McCain by a margin of 65%-19% — while moderates without strong religious views are nearly evenly split among the two candidates.

How to assess those last results? It’s a mystery. If Colbert is the Republicans’ favorite, does that mean they’re not smart enough to understand that he’s making fun of their blowhard heroes? Or does it mean they’re sophisticated enough to enjoy seeing their views skewered? And if Democrats have such a strong preference for The Daily Show, does that mean some of them can’t handle Colbert’s right-wing nutjobbiness, even if it’s in jest?

Stephen ColbertI must admit that when Colbert is truly on his game, as he was last summer and fall – when he threads the needle so perfectly that you forget he’s kidding – I can become slightly uncomfortable with the funhouse-mirror image of O’Reilly and Hannity. (Colbert has become somehow giddier, with less of a sharp satirical edge, since the writers’ strike began and even more so since it ended.) Still, these days I look forward to Colbert infinitely more than The Daily Show, which fell apart during the strike and continues to suffer from the departures of Rob Corddry and Ed Helms as well as Steve Carell and Colbert himself. Mind you, I wouldn’t miss Stewart’s show for the world; fortunately, and thanks to the wonders of DirecTV and living on the West Coast, I don’t even have to wait until 11 p.m. to see it (unlike cable, DirecTV uses the East Coast basic-cable feeds nationwide).

Here are the poll results, direct from Harvard. And in case you never saw it, here’s a YouTube video “trailer” based on this winter’s Stewart/Colbert/Conan O’Brien “Who made Mike Huckabee?” brawl.

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