Do Celebrities Influence Elections?

Maxine Como, Scarlet Staff

Over the past century, celebrity endorsements have increasingly saturated the political campaign scene. Historians trace the role of celebrities in politics all the way back to the 1920 presidential campaign of Warren G. Harding, who was endorsed by film stars such as Al Jolson and Mary Pickford. In the past decade (given the nature of politics in America), many celebrities have used their platforms to express their political opinions. The upcoming election has garnered an unrivaled amount of celebrity attention, with influencers ranging from Cardi B, Mandy Patinkin, and Tana Mongeau voicing their support for Joe Biden.  Although noticeable endorsements can help motivate fans to action, do celebrities actually affect voter behavior? 

While few academic studies have documented a clear link between endorsements and voter behavior, that doesn’t mean that celebrity endorsements have no effect. It has been shown that celebrities attract attention to candidates, get people excited about voting, and are helpful with fundraising. This kind publicity is excellent for local and state candidates, for whom a shoutout from a popular figure would help their campaign reach more people. However, it’s not as helpful for a presidential candidate who already has received national attention. It has also been proven that different demographics respond positively or negatively to an endorsement. Mid-westerners have shown their distaste towards office-seekers who received attention from celebrities. Many Americans think that these celebrities are talking down to them, telling them who to vote for instead of letting them formulate their own opinions. It also makes them feel like candidates are disconnected from the people they represent. Back in 2018, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams drew national attention as a black woman running for office in a majority Republican state. Celebs Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Legend, Will Ferrell, and Oprah Winfrey endorsed her campaign, and later politicians including Barack Obama and Nancy Peposi did the same. However, Abrams lost her race. When speaking at a rally in Georgia to endorse her opponent Brian Kemp, Vice President Mike Pence called Abrams out by name. He said “I heard Oprah is in town today. And I heard Will Ferrell was going door to door the other day. Well, I’d like to remind Stacey and Oprah and Will Ferrell: I’m kind of a big deal, too. And I’ve got a message for all of Stacey Abrams’ liberal Hollywood friends: This ain’t Hollywood. This is Georgia.” Pence was speaking for the majority of Georgians who already weren’t receptive to Abrams’ platform and were further alienated by the stars that they felt were talking down to them.

Demographics aside, in order to really attract support for a candidate, a celebrity must have three qualities: they must be well-known, well-liked, and credible. If a celebrity is well-liked, well-known, but not credible (take Kanye West for example), support from such a person could actually detract voters from their endorsement. One of the only celebrities that has all three qualities is Oprah Winfrey, and there is actual statistical evidence that shows that her endorsement of Barack Obama played a vital role in the 2008 presidential election. Obama announced he was running for president in February of 2007, and three months later he was endorsed by Oprah on her talk show. Oprah is a unique celebrity because she has her own magazine and is known for her product recommendations. She also has a loyal fanbase who she has a great influence over in terms of their consumer spending. Polling evidence suggests that such effects on consumer decisions may translate to politics, with 23% of Democrats saying that Winfrey’s endorsement would make them more likely to vote for Obama (Pew Research Center 2007). Her influence accounted for an estimated one million votes for Obama in the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton.

No other celebrity has made quite as big of an impact as Oprah, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make a difference. In my opinion, the best way celebrities can use their platform is by encouraging people to vote by providing useful information on voter registration, making a plan to vote, and showing their audience that they are doing the same. They can also use their influence to gain them the audience of government officials. LeBron James and other prominent black athletes founded an organization that focuses on inspiring African-Americans to vote and pays off fees for ex-felons so that they are able to vote. Beyoncé and other black female celebrities teamed up with mothers whose children were killed by police brutality to pass legislation to boost mail-in voting and increase equality at the polls. In both cases, money and power was used effectively and unselfishly, which in my opinion is the best thing a celebrity can do.