Celebrity endorsements aren't kingmakers, but they may be tiebreakers

Celebrity endorsements aren't kingmakers, but they may be tiebreakers
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Recently, Kanye West and Taylor Swift have received nearly as much political media attention as the president himself.

Celebrity politics is nothing new. Frank Sinatra, Pat Boone and Dean Martin endorsed Ronald Reagan for president in 1980. Wilt Chamberlain and Joe Louis endorsed Richard Nixon in 1968. Comedian W.C. Fields waded into politics in the early 1940s, referring to the wheelchair-bound Franklin Roosevelt as “gumlegs.”

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No, celebrity politics is not new. What does appear to be new is the seriousness with which we approach celebrity politics. Indeed, since Swift endorsed two Democrats (Jim CooperJames (Jim) Hayes Shofner CooperWhy Democrats are pushing for a new nuclear policy The 15 Democrats who voted against Pelosi House elects Pelosi to second Speakership MORE and Phil Bredesen) running for office in her home state of Tennessee, many have asked: Do celebrity endorsements actually work? Until recently, the received wisdom among political scientists was: “Of course not!”

But a growing body of evidence leads inescapably to the conclusion that celebrity effects are real. For example, University of Saint Mary Professor Mark Harvey’s recent book “Celebrity Influence” shows that celebrities have the ability to “spotlight” issues they care about. So, for example, when George Clooney testified before Congress, met with President Obama, and then protested on the Sudanese embassy lawn in 2012, all in an attempt to draw attention to war crimes, prominent print and broadcast media outlets increased their coverage of the issue substantially.

Of course, affecting media coverage is a far cry from affecting how people vote. Can celebrities do this? The best evidence here comes from two studies of the so-called “Oprah effect.” In a 2008 study, University of Delaware Professor Paul Brewer and his colleague Andrew Pease showed that Oprah Winfrey’s public endorsement of Obama during the 2008 Democratic primaries led many voters to say they were more likely to vote for him. And in a 2013 paper, Northwestern’s Craig Garthwaite and Purdue’s Timothy Moore showed that Oprah’s endorsement resulted in 1,000,000 additional primary votes for Obama, as well as increased monetary contributions.

There is other evidence of celebrity impact as well. David Jackson from Bowling Green State University has shown in a series of studies that young people are more likely to agree with specific policy positions when they are explicitly endorsed by popular celebrities.

In my own research, I have shown that celebrities can affect voter evaluations of political parties, and the president. In one recent experiment, I found that exposing voters to information about an array of popular celebrities (including NASCAR legend Richard Petty, actor Jon Voight, and golf icon Jack Nicklaus) supporting President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration MORE made them more likely to express support for the president.

In another, I found that exposing voters to information about retired football superstar Peyton Manning’s monetary support for Republican candidates led them to evaluate the Republican Party more positively.

In short, there is more evidence than ever that celebrities matter. Of course, caveats apply. First, there is little evidence that celebrity effects are sizeable. Celebrity endorsements may affect individual political behavior, but their impact is dwarfed by the effects of other factors including party identification and candidate evaluations.

Second, celebrities are unlikely to hold much sway if they are either unpopular or not all that famous. So, for example, it is unlikely that Trump got much juice when retired basketball star and North Korea apologist Dennis Rodman and actor Robert Davi endorsed him during the 2018 campaign. Finally, while the evidence that celebrities matter is growing, it is still not extensive.

But even if we accept these caveats (and I do), there are reasons to take celebrity effects seriously. We are now a “50-50” nation. In national elections at least, we are quite evenly divided. Many House and Senate races this year are bound to be very close. Thus, even if a celebrity endorsement affects only a small portion of the population, it may be enough to tilt an election one way or the other.

Celebrities are not kingmakers, but in an era of close elections, they may be tiebreakers. So, if Democrat Phil Bredesen can keep it close in his Senate race against Republican Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnTrump’s new Syria timetable raises concern among key anti-ISIS allies Dem lawmaker invites Parkland survivor to attend State of the Union Bipartisan senators press Trump for strategy to protect Syrian Kurds MORE, Swift might just put him over the top.

Additionally, the celebrity endorsements we hear about tend to come from popular, well-known celebrities. West and Swift are two of the most famous people on earth, and while West is controversial, it appears that both of them are quite popular. In other words, they are exactly the kinds of celebrities who might be capable of moving the needle.

Finally, most Americans, even in this era of non-stop, ubiquitous political coverage, do not pay particularly close attention to politics. Thus, what they do hear — and celebrity endorsements have the ability to cut through the clutter and reach people who are politically inattentive — may affect them.

It is tempting to dismiss celebrity endorsements as inconsequential. But we should avoid temptation; celebrity endorsements matter.

Anthony J. Nownes is a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee. He is the author of “ Total Lobbying: What Lobbyists Want (and How They Try to Get It).”