On the second night of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, I had the opportunity to witness the speeches in Time Warner Cable Arena, including former President Bill Clinton’s celebrated keynote speech. Although seeing Clinton’s speech was the highlight of my night, a chance encounter I had leaving the arena came in (very) close second. As my friend and I weaved our way through the crowded press area toward the exit, I spotted a familiar hairdo and lo and behold will.i.am was standing two feet away. My friend and I approached the singer tentatively to ask to take a picture with him, and he graciously agreed. We left the arena smiling. Night made.
Will.i.am has been a fervent supporter of President Barack Obama since the 2008 election when he starred in and released the “Yes We Can” music video. He wasn’t the only celebrity who appeared in the music video, and he was far from the only celebrity to attend the Democratic National Convention. Famous actors and singers flocked to Charlotte, N.C., for the political event, and several of them, including Scarlett Johansson and Eva Longoria, spoke on the final night leading up to the president’s speech.
A week before, some celebrities also attended the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. Who can forget Clint Eastwood’s now notorious empty chair speech? The fallout from the speech made it impossible to forget. As Connor Adams Sheets of The International Business Times pointed out, the celebrities in attendance at the DNC far outnumbered those at the RNC, which reflects Hollywood’s “notoriously liberal” reputation. Todd Kendall’s “An Empirical Analysis of Political Activity in Hollywood” completed in 2007 supports that reputation through an analysis of political contributions from 996 actors, directors, producers and writers in Hollywood. However, Sheets’ article noted that, although Republican supporters may be harder to come by in Hollywood, there are still a significant number of celebrities who have voiced their support for Mitt Romney.
Hollywood actors have endorsed political candidates since The recent rise in celebrity endorsements of presidential candidates and their campaign involvement is blurring the lines between Hollywood and politics, says Darrell West, the director of the Brookings Institution in Washington, in a CBS News article. This election season celebrities have acted as surrogates on the campaign trail, headlined fundraisers, donated millions of dollars, and spoken out on social media.
But amid the flurry of YouTube videos and fundraising dinners, questions remain. How is this affecting the election? And what does this mean for the future of presidential campaigns?
Three researchers from Emerson college explored the first question in a case study of the 2004 presidential election. Gregory Payne, John Hanlon and David Twomey analyzed the effect of celebrity appearances and endorsements on youth voter turnout based on Twomey’s experiences as a political reporters at a university in Pennsylvania. They found that endorsements from famous politicians had more staying power had more staying power than endorsements from Hollywood, but overall celebrity endorsements helped raise voter turnout, particularly among younger people. Despite their findings, the researchers predicted grassroots campaigning emphasizing the issues would matter more to youth than image-focused celebrity spectacles during the 2008 presidential election.
Grassroots efforts did prove to be instrumental leading up to the 2008 presidential election, but celebrity endorsements were still valuable to candidates as illustrated by the effect of Oprah Winfrey’s public endorsement of Barack Obama — her first ever endorsement of a presidential candidate. Andrew Pease and Paul Brewer’s research on the her endorsement’s impact found that the news did not necessarily affect whether voters had favorable opinions of Obama or viewed him as likable. But if voters had a favorable opinion about Oprah, they said the endorsement made Obama seem like a more viable candidate and made them more likely to vote for him. As an extremely popular celebrity, Oprah has a much greater influence on the American public than the majority of celebrities. However, like the 2004 study in Pennsylvania, this analysis showed the potential for celebrity endorsements to affect voters.
But the effects are not always positive. Payne, Hanlon and Twomey’s analysis discussed the backlash that can come from the political involvement of certain celebrities, pointing to Sean “Diddy” Combs and his Vote or Die campaign, which mobilized conservative Republicans who opposed to vote for President George W. Bush. For some, the vote was not just for the candidate but against the celebrity — in this case Diddy. Anthony Nownes investigated the effects of celebrity support for U.S. political parties and found a similar pattern when analyzing people’s responses to Jennifer Aniston and Peyton Manning’s political party support. People who liked Peyton Manning reported liking the Republican Party more after learning Manning supported it. On the converse, people who disliked Jennifer Aniston reported liking the Democratic Party less after learning Aniston supported it.
Celebrity endorsements can pay off big time for presidential candidates as Barack Obama learned after Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement in 2007, but they can also backfire. Given the high number of celebrities involved in this year’s election, it looks like celebrity political activity during campaigns is here to stay. This trend seems to be even further skewing the focus toward image and away from political issues, and it is worrisome that voters are swayed by celebrities who they often like for reasons completely unrelated to politics. I can’t say I’m entirely immune to celebrity endorsements. But the influence they have over voters’ opinions by simply voicing support for a candidate is powerful. And it seems they might decreasing the importance of policy issues, which could lead to less informed voters.