Today's New York Times carries an article titled, “Mark Sanford’s path of Most Renaissance” followed by the lead-copy on its home page:

“The South Carolina governor went from potential presidential contender to late-night punch line. Now he’s a junior congressman trying to find his way in a divided G.O.P.”

Apparently, a strident conservative David Brat Sanford emerged from “the place where nobody wanted to even acknowledge your name,” as he told in a press interview to the position to influence on G.D.P’s destiny and its policy.

None of CED, OED, and Merriam-Webster carries this word, nor can I find it on Google NViewer.

I think this requires some knowledge about the situation of U.S. politics and the background of U.S. politicians. But what does the word, "Presidential contender to late-night-punch line”? Does it mean that he came up from the unknown to the well-known, then up to the popular object of late night show topics and quips?

2 Answers 2


the late-night part comes from:

Late-night talk show

A late-night talk show is a subgenre of the talk show genre. In American television at least, it is specifically a kind of comedy-oriented talk and variety show that airs late at night. Characteristics of the genre include topical monologues in which the host makes fun of the day's news, comedy sketches, celebrity interviews, and musical performances.

and punchline

The climactic phrase or statement of a joke, producing a sudden humorous effect.

Basically late-night punch line just means the butt of a joke on a talk show.

note: late-night jokes are not the classiest.


The sentence "went from potential presidential contender to late-night punch line" means that the South Carolina governor originally was very highly esteemed, even to the point that people thought he was going to be the next president but, and I don't know what happened, something happened and he turned into a joke. No it does not mean that he went from an unknown to becoming the popular object of late night TV - but that on his way 'up the ladder' he crashed and burned.

  • 1
    More specifically, late-night talk-show jokes freely deal with sexual themes, on the assumption that children are unlikely to be watching; and thus political sex scandals (such as that which swirled about Mr. Sanford in 2009) are fodder for these jokes. The joke tellers are generally the hosts, who are comedians, more than their guests. Jun 27, 2014 at 2:08
  • @user3306356. I guessed wrong. So I revamped the question. Jun 27, 2014 at 2:54
  • @YoichiOishi updated my answer
    – Mou某
    Jun 27, 2014 at 2:57

The proper parsing is: "The governor went from X to Y." X equals "presidential contender." Y equals "late night punch line."

So the phrase means, "The governor used to be a Presidential contender. Now he is a late night punch line (aka, a "joke.")

There is no such phrase as "contender to late night punch line." That is to say, "contender" is connected to "Presidential," not to "late night punch line."

The reason was revelations about his personal life, specifically his dating a woman not his wife, in a state where marital fidelity is particularly highly valued.

From the linked article, "Before his love affair became international news," he was a potential candidate for President of the United States (presidential contender). Afterward, he was a "joke," or verbal "punching bag" on late night shows.

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