Brian Boyd: Why do US politicians seek celebrity endorsements?

Research shows the rich and famous alienate more voters than they recruit

Hillary Clinton on stage with Beyoncé and Jay Z in Cleveland, Ohio, last Friday. People resent high-achieving multimillionaires lecturing them about how they should vote. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

Hillary Clinton on stage with Beyoncé and Jay Z in Cleveland, Ohio, last Friday. People resent high-achieving multimillionaires lecturing them about how they should vote. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

 

It was a supermarket celebrity sweep for Hillary Clinton last weekend as she appeared alongside power couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé at a show in Ohio; another Clinton surrogate, singer Katy Perry, was doing the shill for Hillary in Nevada. Jon Bon Jovi and Pharrell Williams were also busy singing ‘n’ sighing for a Democratic victory. Miley Cyrus was out knocking on doors, and J-Lo (who had Hillary as support act in Miami last week) was doing similar.

Add in George Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio et al from the film world and you’re looking at an entertainment world full house for Clinton. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has been endorsed by the guy who used to play Chaci in the 1970s TV show Happy Days.

What began with the 1976 US presidential election, when Jimmy Carter had The Marshall Tucker Band and The Allman Brothers supporting him, has now become a luvvie orgy. The erroneous belief is that popular and successful film and music stars wield influence (particularly among younger voters) and their star power adds lustre to a political campaign.

But it’s all based on the Oprah Winfrey fallacy. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Oprah Winfrey supported Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. It was significant to the extent that academics crunching the numbers estimated that Winfrey’s endorsement generated more than one million votes for Obama. By all accounts, Clinton has never forgiven Winfrey for her less than sisterly betrayal.

Oprah Winfrey is demonstrably influential. By pulling her educated female constituency away from its natural fit (Clinton) to Obama, she effectively sealed the Democratic race. As some measure of her exceptional status within US society, just consider that when Donald Trump wanted to run for president in 2000 (on the Reform Party ticket) he desperately wanted Oprah Winfrey to be his running mate, saying of her: “She is very special, she would be a fantastic vice-president – a popular, brilliant, wonderful woman.”

US Election: Race tightens

Oprah alienates voters

But when David Jackson, a US professor of political science, carried out research on whether celebrity endorsements of politicians made any difference, he found surprising results. Oprah Winfrey has endorsed Hillary Clinton in this election but Jackson found that Winfrey has a minus 5.2 drain among voters overall – meaning that to the general voting public not only does an Oprah Winfrey endorsement count for nothing but it may alienate some voters. However, Winfrey does have a net positive score among educated women.

Jackson’s figures are based on asking 804 general election voters “whether a particular celebrity endorsement would make them “more likely” or “less likely” to support a candidate. He found that “none of the celebrities showed a net positive effect, and four of them showed double-digit net negative effects”.

Most startling, the celebrity with the biggest drag effect was Beyoncé (meaning she subtracts more voters than she adds) with a minus 19.9 score. The singer may be adored by the media and saluted for highlighting the Black Lives Matter campaign but for the US in its demographic totality she is a turn-off. Which ironically may well be because she is adored by the liberal media and her advocacy work on behalf of Black Lives Matter.

Where Beyoncé does have a net positive score is within the sub-set of millennial voters and this was why she was tactically deployed by Clinton at the weekend – millennial voters are proving highly resistant to Clinton’s charm offensive.

‘Boycott The Boss’

The overall reason why celebrity endorsements are a turn-off (except within voting subsets) is because people resent highly successful, high-achieving multimillionaires lecturing them about how they should cast their vote. Beyoncé is worth $450 million; Jay-Z is worth $650 million. For people wondering how their stretched family budget will fare under either a Trump or a Clinton presidency, this blurring of celebrity and politics is alienating.

And voters aren’t slow to vent their anger and disdain at rich and successful celebrity endorsements. During the 2004 US election, Bruce Springsteen wrote an impassioned piece for the New York Times detailing why voters should support John Kerry over George Bush.

A considerable number of Springsteen fans organised a “Boycott The Boss” campaign in protest at his party political broadcast. Comments ranged from “he thinks making millions with a song-and-dance routine allows him to tell you how to vote” to “Bruce Springsteen is a total left-wing tool. I won’t be buying any of his albums in the future”.

But even in the knowledge that a celebrity endorsement can only lose votes for a candidate overall, it persists as a viable electoral strategy for the simple reason that it greatly increases the number of stories about a candidate in the media and improves their placement.

Looking ahead to the 2020 US presidential election, the nature of the celebrity-politician interface will have an interesting twist. The only declared candidate so far: Kanye West.

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