What makes a successful political campaign? Is the path to election about debate performances, policy proposals, and getting out there to kiss hands and shake babies, or is it all about star power? Every election cycle, myriad celebrities turn up to endorse their favorite candidates – from the megastars of the entertainment industry to those favorites of yesteryear who apparently weren’t dead after all.
Those endorsements mobilize the millions of indecisive voters just sitting around waiting on someone more important to tell them what to do. What do you think planted Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office in 2016? Wait; what? She didn’t beat Trump? Huh, as it turns out, nobody really cares about celebrity endorsements other than the media – well, and celebrities.
The Power, the Absolute Power
To be fair, the right – or exceptionally wrong – political endorsement can be a powerful thing. After Joe Biden’s first primary win in South Carolina, 47% of Democratic voters polled ranked Rep. Jim Clyburn’s (D-SC) endorsement as either “the most important factor” or, at least, “an important factor” in voting for Biden. That’s huge. Oprah Winfrey’s backing of Barack Obama in 2008 is believed to have resulted in about a million votes, arguably making her the first person Hillary Clinton should blame for not bringing home the nomination back then.
Sometimes, though, the help is a hindrance. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) went into damage control mode back in the 2016 primary after off-the-rails diatribes by Susan Sarandon, Rosario Dawson, Tim Robbins, and Killer Mike – all of whom were doing their level best to carry their favorite socialist to the White House.
To get back to Biden, disgraced former FBI head honcho James Comey voted for and endorsed via Twitter the former vice president in this very Super Tuesday primary. It’s reminiscent of the scene from the Chris Rock film Head of State, in which Rock’s character, who is running for president, puts out advertisements for his opponent highlighting the “support” of a Klansman and even Osama bin Laden. One could perhaps be forgiven for wondering if a lower-ranked candidate watched the film recently. What do you do when someone whose chief claims to fame are his corruption and getting fired by the president sends you such a “gift”? You send it back – and that’s precisely what the Biden campaign did. Shortly after Comey’s tweet, Uncle Joe’s rapid response director, Andrew Bates, replied: “Yes, customer service? I just received a package that I very much did not order. How can I return it, free of charge?” There was some backlash, and Bates backpedaled by trying to play it off as a joke, but one can imagine the cringing and cursing in Camp Biden.
Phenomenal Cosmic Powers, Itty Bitty Living Space
While the examples mentioned above sure seem to refute the idea that celebrities do not influence voters, they are the rare exception, not the rule. Rep. Clyburn is a prominent politician in South Carolina – the state in which his endorsement was shown to have an effect. Oprah is, well, Oprah. She transcended mere celebrity status decades ago. The other examples demonstrate an essential fact that many politicians probably wish their proxies in the entertainment industry would remember: Celebrities have more potential to harm candidates than help them.
Numerous studies have shown that most people don’t care about the political opinions of performers. For that matter, Americans don’t tend to change their political views regardless of what they’re told or by whom. A 2014 study found that even young people weren’t likely to be swayed by what celebrities said. In 2004, Alan Gerber of Yale University found that political household mailings only increased vote probabilities by 0.2%. In 2018, American Political Science Review released a study showing that the total effect of many outreach tools, from canvassing and phone banking to mailings and television ads, has a cumulative impact of about zip on general elections.
If social science isn’t good enough for you, just look back at the 2016 election. Dig deep in your memory or, if you’ve repressed it, head to YouTube for one of the many hilariously triggering recaps. Go ahead; we’ll wait. Katie Frates summed it up best in January of 2017. Writing for the Daily Caller, she said:
“Some of the world’s most famous celebrities #stoodwithher, and it did a whole lot of nothing for Hillary Clinton.”
No Matter What Anybody Says, You’ll Always Be a Prince to Me
So that one might be a stretch. But if you haven’t caught on yet, all subtitles in this article are lines from Disney’s Aladdin – an animated movie from the early 90s about a guy who wished he was a prince and just happened to have a genie pal to make it come true.
Hillary wished to be the president a couple of times, but she clearly didn’t rub the lamp the right way – neither did Bernie, apparently – and no amount of celebrity endorsements changed that. Unfortunately for them, the only people who think the various classes of elites – whether from Hollywood, the Swamp, or the media – are more important than the average voter are the elites themselves.
Even if today’s crop of celebrities could sway public opinion as heavily as they believe they can, what good would changing the minds of a bunch of Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Bieber fans do? Most of them aren’t old enough to vote! All delusions of grandeur aside, to the question “Who cares about celebrity endorsements come election day,” the answer is “nobody who matters.”
Read more from James Fite.