Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks and Oprah — all these household names have endorsed a presidential candidate during the elections. And, year after year, pundits note that celebrity endorsements seem to excite, anger and even confuse more than they help any candidate win an election.
We seem to naturally assume that celebrities can’t possibly get involved with politics because they don’t understand politics, in the same way that some people are skeptical about celebrities endorsing certain charities not because they address a cause they support, but because it’s great publicity.
However, celebrity endorsements are useful for three reasons. One, they are influential; two, they bring in money; and three, they get people talking.
Voter turnout in recent U.S. elections has ranged from 50% to 60%. Voter turnout for the 18-24 age demographic in the last election increased significantly, up 8% from 2004.
For some, the use of celebrities as high-profile cheerleaders for candidates is seen as patronizing, as it assumes that people don’t understand politics and need to have it explained to them through a celebrity medium. Whils it may be true that some people genuinely aren’t interested in politics, other people are, and they often don’t need a celebrity to explain to them why voting is important.
There isn’t a formula to calculate how much of a vote share candidate X gets because they have the support of celebrity Y. Craig Garthwaite and Timothy Moore from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University wrote a piece examining what they called “The Oprah Effect, which looked at the impact of celebrity endorsements of candidates.
The talk show host, who had never before publicly endorsed a presidential candidate until 2008, is widely touted as being both popular and influential. The study established that the effect of Oprah’s endorsement won one million votes for Obama. At the same time, it also asserted that a slightly less influential celebrity could win a couple of thousand votes for a candidate.
But this oversimplifies the issue, because you cannot assign a formula or vote value to each celebrity.
However, 2012 is a completely different election year because of social media; most crucially, Twitter is being used more widely. Twitter has not only made it easier for politicians, celebrities and journalists to reach out to vast numbers of people, it has also made it a lot easier to calculate or guess how influential a celebrity endorsement could be judging by the number of followers said celebrity has.
The number of Twitter followers for a celebrity can range from the four to five million mark (Jessica Alba, Beyonce, Tom Hanks) to 13 million plus (Oprah, Nicki Minaj).
Another reason as to why celebrity endorsements are here to stay is because they bring in money. Elections are an expensive and time-consuming business for any country, from setting up polling stations to printing promotional material, and it is getting more expensive every year.
George Clooney’s fundraising dinner for Obama raised around $15 million. A recent fundraising party held by Jay-Z and Beyonce raised $4 million. A fundraising dinner by Harvey Weinstein charged $35,800 per head in a party of about 50 people.
Romney also has his fair share of celebrity donations, including country singer John Rich, Jerry Bruckheimer, Scott Baio and Vince and Linda McMahon. Each person has donated from $2,500 to $12,500. In fact, Romney’s fundraising efforts (minus the support of Oprah) were reported to be $101 million, far exceeding Obama’s $75 million in August of this year.
It is an odd situation. Celebrities are deemed to be influential, yet we don’t use them as the first port of call on their thoughts on health policy. We can ask them what they think about the war in Iraq but we don’t expect them to offer strategic solutions, and we scoff at them when they do.
This is also added to the fact that very few celebrities in any country will openly talk about politics. Even those who have come out in support of a candidate will vaguely say, “I like Romney/Obama’s vision for America”, but won’t go into further detail about what specific polices they like.
Stars like Hilary Duff, Sarah-Michelle Gellar, Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears and Vince Vaughan are all either registered Republicans or have previously expressed Republican sentiments yet none of these people have ever openly joined any conversations about politics or for any meaningful policy analysis.
Policy analysis is for journalists, academics and pundits of the world; celebrities are naturally left out of the dialogue. But they nonetheless assume the role of cheerleaders during election season because they drum up support, they get people get excited, and most importantly (yes, even if it does involve Clint Eastwood and a chair), they get people talking.