Throughout the last decade, celebrities have assumed a more prominent role in the political realm. In particular, their political activism seems highest during campaign season. Several celebrities, including Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé, have been featured in YouTube videos to voice their support for President Obama. On Monday, singer Bruce Springsteen will perform at Obama’s last campaign event in Madison, Wisconsin. Shortly after, the two will hop on a plane to Columbus, Ohio, where Obama will meet with rapper Jay-Z for another political rally. In addition to endorsements through public appearances, performances and advertisements, some celebrities have hosted fundraisers for their preferred candidate, including George Clooney, Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and Donald Trump. I was interested in learning why celebrities have made the decision to cross over into the political arena. Additionally, I wanted to know if celebrity endorsements of political candidates had any real effect on how people decide to vote.
In a book written by Sam Popkin called The Reasoning Voter, Popkin argues that one way citizens participate in presidential campaigns is through “low information rationality.” In other words, citizens use information short cuts, particularly “by relying on information gathered from their nonpolitical lives,” to make political choices easier. Popkin’s book argues that voters use limited information to “think about campaigns in strategic ways.” As discussed in this article, Popkin’s argument that citizens use short cuts to make the decision-making process easier could be used to explain the increase in celebrity endorsements of political candidates. Celebrity endorsements make it easier for citizens to distinguish among candidates, in that they see celebrities they like, admire, or relate to and use this association to make a choice among candidates.
Another reason that candidates seek celebrity endorsements is to help “mobilize young citizens.” Austin et. al note, “the process by which individuals develop a connection with celebrities, increasing the likelihood that the viewer will perform the behaviors advocated by the celebrity…is called ‘identification.’” Identification is a major component of the persuasion process in which celebrities influence audience behavior. Historically, young adults have been disengaged and apathetic towards political processes—perceiving voting mostly as a “waste of time.” Linking popular celebrities to “mundane” political tasks has been a tactic to leverage a portion of the population typically overlooked.
Lastly, as suggested in an article by Jennifer Brubaker, celebrities and politicians “offer each other something that they individually lack; elected officials have credibility, but are often not liked; and celebrities are well-liked and admired, but don’t often have credibility or respectability to their names.” Teaming up allows for each participant to “win.” Celebrities are portrayed as caring about something “greater than themselves,” while politicians’ interactions with faces of pop culture helps to humanize them. Brubaker points out that “while the endorsement may not translate directly into votes, the money they raise should translate into support.”
There is conflicting information as to whether or not celebrity endorsements actually make a difference in presidential elections. As stated in Brubaker’s article, some reports show that “less than 10 percent of people were influenced by a celebrity endorsement in the 2004 election. However, MediaVest reported in 2004 that 40 percent of young adults ages 18-24 were influenced by celebrity endorsements and that 15 percent of all adults reported a celebrity influence on their voting preferences.”
In the article written by Andrew Pease and Paul Brewer, different types of surveys were conducted and compared to see the effects of Oprah Winfrey’s very public endorsement of Barack Obama. The survey asking if Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama would influence an individual’s vote polled much differently than the survey asking if Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama would help his candidacy. As noted by Pease and Brewer, “these results suggest that the endorsement could have shaped the perception of Obama’s viability as a candidate even if it did not directly influence support for him.” While these survey results seem impressive, it is important to keep in mind that Oprah Winfrey is not an “average” celebrity. Starring in her own talk show, producing her very own television network and publishing a magazine aren’t accomplishments every celebrity can say they have done.The statistics indicating her influence on the 2008 election may look differently had this survey been conducted on another celebrity’s political endorsement.
As indicated throughout the above research, even if celebrity endorsements don’t directly translate into votes, it can segue into something that is just as useful to politicians: support. Celebrity endorsements can provide financial assistance, be used to engage with a younger generation of voters, or provide means to rebrand a politician’s hard and serious demeanor. Overwhelmingly though, scholars agree that celebrity involvement in political activities helps to promote civic engagement. “If nothing else, celebrity endorsements may impact young people as a ‘stepping stone activist experience’” in that they will attend a political event simply because their favorite celebrity is there speaking or performing, and will then stay to partake in the political activity that follows.