Certain things are a given in election season: Endless repetition of political slogans. Sniping. Promises, promises, promises. And celebrities who pop up to endorse their favorite candidates. This election season has been weirder than most, but the campaigns have still hit their marks, right down to the strange celebrity bedfellows: Kim Kardashian for Hillary Clinton; Jello Biafra for Bernie Sanders; Loretta Lynn for Donald Trump, and Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” for Ted Cruz.
Clinton, by far, boasts the most A-listers, including George Clooney, Beyonce, and pop star Katy Perry, while Trump’s proponents tend to be former contestants from his TV show, “Celebrity Apprentice”—not to mention his notorious endorsement from Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Several marquee names are “feeling the Bern,” notably Susan Sarandon, Sarah Silverman, and Mark Ruffalo. Ted Cruz trails with only a handful of notables, including Glenn Beck, James Woods, and David Mamet.
You’d think that an endorsement from a celebrity with millions of fans would give a campaign an instant boost. But the reality is more complicated, says political science professor Richard Fox of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Fox is an expert in the intersection of media and politics, and is co-editor of iPolitics: Citizens, Elections, and Governing in the New Media Era (Cambridge University Press). I talked to him about what celebrity endorsements really mean.
Q. How important are celebrity endorsements to candidate?
A. It’s hard to pinpoint what helps a candidate and what doesn’t, because campaigns are such a dynamic process, and there are so many things going on at the same time. Is it your latest TV ad that made your numbers go up, or because Katy Perry endorsed you, or because your opponent is stumbling? Campaigns spend time cultivating celebrity endorsements, they always announce them, and clearly they think such an endorsement is a good and helpful thing. Hillary Clinton has played Katy Perry’s song “Roar” after victory speeches—she needs an enhanced image with young people, and she thinks that might be helpful. But of all the political scientists who’ve studied this, no one has conclusively shown, “Oh, you’ll go up up 5% with young people if this rock star endorses you.”
Q. So Oprah didn’t help Obama that much?
A. Well, he was his own celebrity, right? John McCain put out an ad comparing him to Paris Hilton, as if that were a negative for him! It could be that a certain celebrity—and Oprah was certainly in this category—has so many followers and is so influential or so beloved that it might matter. However, there’s no research showing that Oprah’s endorsement bumped him by, say, 2%. Although if an endorsement were going to matter, it seems like that one would have!
Q. Can a celebrity endorsement actually hurt a candidate?
A. Well, David Duke is a kind of celebrity, but even his endorsement didn’t make much of a difference to Trump’s campaign. Sarah Palin’s approval ratings are quite low, and she’s sort of on the fringe in the Republican party now. Her endorsement might help in the primary and hurt in the general. And certainly nobody’s cultivating O.J. Simpson’s endorsement! But there’s not much evidence that any endorsements matter.
Q. Can a candidate refuse an endorsement?
A. You can disavow an endorsement, but the celebrity can say whatever they want to say, right? Sure, if you’re a Democrat running in a conservative state, you might not want the left-wing or Hollywood elite proclaiming their support for you. On the other hand, the Hollywood elite can help you raise money, and that’s very important. That’s why Hillary flies out here or Obama flew out here and is at Steven Spielberg’s or George Clooney’s home where they’re hosting fundraisers for you.
[Conservative radio host] Laura Ingraham wrote the book Shut Up & Sing, blasting the liberal actors and musicians who are touting liberal politicians. Her message was, “Get out of politics, George Clooney!” But Democrats still want the liberal media, pop culture, and the Hollywood establishment to endorse them—the entertainment industry is their basis of support.
Q. What’s the role of social media in all this?
There’s so much going on in social media and it’s hard to measure what it all means. If young people are the ones who are most responsive to popular culture, they’re also the demographic that is least engaged and least likely to vote. Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian [have huge followings], but I’m not sure their audiences are following the election.
But political science can be wrong. Katy Perry has so many Twitter followers [85.6 million], and she endorsed Hillary Clinton and gives Clinton access to her list. It could be possible that it’s helping in ways boring social scientists don’t know yet!