Interview by Erin Stair, MD, MPH
I wish all celebrities well, but I don’t care about who they vote for, what products they buy, what food they eat, what clothes they wear, what wellness trend they jump on, or what causes they support. I’ve never cared. If I want advice, I listen to people who have experience or credentials related to whatever it is I’m asking about. If I want to support a cause, I do it because I care about the cause. When it comes to politics and voting, I try to be informed. This means I research issues that are important to me, and then I research the candidates and decide who is most likely to accomplish what I want done. I’m also cynical and constantly struggle with the notion that no matter who I vote for, it’s a vote for gridlock, because DC is a nest of rats and nothing ever changes (that much) for me. Despite my cynicism, the idea of taking advice from a celebrity, a person I don’t know, who is aloof from the average person’s troubles, and often not well educated on policies or issues that matter to me, is absurd. This past week, I’ve asked friends across the country for their opinions on celebrity endorsements of candidates. It’s a hot topic since Ye (Kanye West) continuously struts his support for President Trump, and Taylor Swift recently broke her silence on politics to endorse Democrats. Most of my friends’ responses fall in line with, “I wish they’d shut up,” “They are obnoxious,” “I don’t care what they think,
“…all responses that fuel my beliefs about celebrity influence. Some with stronger partisan ties gave harsher responses, like, “I’m never watching his/her show again,” “I’m never listening to his/her music again,” “He/She is dead to me,” “Commie Loser,” “Watch his/her ratings go down now,” “I hope Hollyweird falls into the ocean.”
Anecdotes aren’t data, and perhaps my social circle is swimming in anti-celebrity bias, so I asked Dr. David Jackson
, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University, for his thoughts. His research and published studies focus on the significance between celebrities and political preferences. Dr. Jackson was kind enough to answer several questions for me:
1) Celebrities were very active in the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton especially tried to leverage celebrity influence for her campaign. In your opinion, how did celebrity endorsements impact the 2016 election?
Dr. Jackson: Research shows that celebrities may have helped Clinton in 2016. For example, Nownes shows that celebrity endorsements reduced voters’ anxiety and anger toward Clinton. The reduction of these negative emotions leads to greater likelihood of support. Donald Trump had no military or public service experience before seeking the presidency. His reputation was based mostly on his hosting a “reality” game show. He is the ultimate celebrity politician. His success flips the situation ( or at least it should) of Republicans complaining about celebrity involvement in politics, because they supported a candidate who was not just celebrity-endorsed, but was a celebrity with no public service experience himself.
Soooo…Hillary’s celebrity endorsements helped her, BUT she still lost, and Republicans should file their complaints about celebrities under Pot/Kettle. Got it.
2) Are certain voter demographics more influenced by celebrities than others, and influenced in significant ways?
It matters more if the celebrity matches the demographic or political predispositions of the voters they are trying to influence. My research
shows, for example, that country music star Trace Adkins is a net drag on likely voters overall, but a net positive only among country fans. Similarly, Ted Nugent is a net drag overall, but a net positive among supporters of the Tea Party.
In the study Dr. Jackson mentions, 804 voters in Ohio were polled, so it wasn’t a national sample. Still, there were only three endorsements that yielded a net positive effect, meaning voters were more likely to vote for the candidate endorsed by the following three: The New York Times, The United Workers and the Cleveland Dealer. Endorsements from Beyonce, Eva Longoria, Lenna Dunham, the NRA and even Oprah all had a net negative effect, meaning voters were less likely to vote for the candidate these celebrities endorsed. ( However, Oprah had a significant net positive effect ( 20.7 points) among African American voters.)
3) In your opinion, is it smart for a political candidate to spend time and money leveraging celebrity influence?
Yes. My most recent research shows that celebrities who are liked
(and therefore possibly viewed also as credible) are able to influence what people think about issues. This includes, for example, Taylor Swift’s endorsement of feminism, making the belief more popular among those who like her.
Candidates, take note: Focus on getting endorsements from celebrities who are consistently liked. Taylor Swift falls into that category…I think.
4) We hear a lot about celebrities being out of touch with normal Americans. Does that impact “small-town” voter mentality? In your opinion, do people get angry or annoyed when celebrities tell their fans who to vote for?
Dr. Jackson: Traditionally, Republicans have made this argument and potentially benefited from it, but it seems this argument no longer has validity, in that they now support a President who literally has a tower with his name on it.
Kind of funny, because it’s true.
5) Obviously these are divided times, and social media fuels this division. When a celebrity endorses someone or starts actively protesting, do you see fans with opposing political views turning against them? Amy Schumer & Emily Ratajkowski most recently come to mind. Any thoughts on this?
Dr. Jackson: Celebrities definitely need to be thoughtful about the effect their issue position and candidate endorsements can have on their own brand. If they endorse a candidate who loses, they may be blamed for it, even if it’s not their fault the candidate lost. If the candidate wins and does unpopular things, their brand may be tainted by being attached to the candidate.
6) Ye ( Kanye West) is in the news a lot for his support for President Trump. Do you think his support will have an impact on voters, particularly with African American voters, in the midterms or even President Trump’s potential 2020 run?
Dr. Jackson: I do not.
Can you explain why?
Dr. Jackson: I haven’t included Kanye West in my surveys so it is difficult to say anything based on hard data, so this is a bit speculative. Media presentations of him and reactions to his comments would not lead most voters to find him credible.
7) Taylor Swift just came out in support of Democratic candidates in Tennessee. Many folks are crediting a spike in voting registration to her endorsement. Do you think this spike was a result of Swift, and was this a “win” for Democrats?
Dr. Jackson: It’s hard to sort out Swift’s impact from the fact that the registration deadline for a number of states was approaching, and registrations normally spike then.
So it may be incorrect to attribute the spike in registration to Taylor, but she is likeable (see Question 3 above), so… who knows?