Political endorsements from celebrities: do they matter?

Many celebrities spoke out about politics ahead of the 2022 midterms. But will their voices have an impact on the electorate?

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Kim Kardashian took to Instagram to endorse Rick Caruso. Lin Manuel Miranda stumped for Raphael Warnock. Kerry Washington went on a nationwide endorsement tour in support of several members of the Democratic party.

While not a new phenomenon, celebrity endorsement of politicians has become more widespread and the weight behind them has increasingly become a topic of debate and curiosity.

More recently, Katy Perry posted an Instagram selfie Monday in front of a voting machine queued to select L.A. mayoral candidate Rick Caruso. “I am voting for a myriad of reasons (see the news) but in particular because Los Angeles is a hot mess [at the moment],” Perry captioned the post.

In spite of the popularity of using celebrities on both sides of the political aisle to sway voters, the effectiveness and true influence of the method is often questioned.

“Celebrities are people just like us, only with a different occupation and different given circumstances,” said Shyheim Carter, a graduate student studying acting. “I don’t let their decisions sway how I live my life or what decisions I make because often what is affecting them is not going to be affecting me.”

C.J. Craig, a senior majoring in theater, thinks similarly, specifying how celebrity influence can be both beneficial and detrimental during elections. “I do feel like celebrities do have a chance to sway people’s mindsets and move towards progressive actions,” Craig said. “But also at the same time, their actions can move them the wrong way.”

Freshman business administration major Joseph Good favored celebrity endorsements. “I know Lebron James is pretty left-leaning overall, and I would say he definitely has impacted some of the ways that I view certain issues,” Good said.

Research tends to side with Good’s sentiment. A study conducted by Columbia University concludes that Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary had a statistically significant effect on the political outcomes that followed. A study done by Northwestern University came to similar conclusions, citing increased voter turnout and campaign contributions after Winfrey’s endorsement.

However, Mary Murphy, USC Annenberg associate professor and former Entertainment Tonight correspondent, argued that some celebrities have more of an impact on elections than others. “I think in terms of voting, the celebrities that count are former presidents,” Murphy said. “But I don’t think Hollywood celebrities make a difference.”

Murphy also explained how celebrities tend to impact their audiences through their projects and advocating for important issues, more so than who celebrities endorse politically.

Regardless of viewpoints of individuals, it is clear that well regarded celebrities, in the eyes of the public, have sway in regard to election outcomes.

Taylor Swift famously endorsed Democratic nominee Phil Bredesen in the 2018 midterm election for one of Tennessee’s seats on the Senate. Bredesen was ultimately defeated by incumbent senator Marsha Blackburn. Several mainstream media outlets, such as CNN and the Guardian, reported on the coincidental increase of registered voters in the days after Swift made her statement, but no concrete line was drawn between the two.

Some celebrities have less coherent endorsements. Former fashion mogul and rapper Ye, formally known as Kanye West, endorsed Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential elections, then denounced him before launching his own presidential run.

Celebrity endorsements of politicians date back to the 1920′s when Al Jolson, the first actor with a speaking role in non-silent film, endorsed Warren G. Harding for president as head of the “Harding-Coolidge Theatrical League,” a coalition of 70 other early film actors and jazz musicians. Harding won the election with 60.3% of the popular vote against James Cox who had 34.1%, the largest difference in votes at the time.

“I think celebrity influence is more important in terms of issues… in terms of voter turnout, I’m not sure it has any impact at all,” said Murphy, adding that the power of celebrities relies on longer actions. “If Leonardo DiCaprio speaks in front of the United Nations about climate change and makes films about climate change … that has an impact.”