This weekend, Beyoncé and Jay Z hosted a high-profile and free concert in a get-out-the-vote effort to benefit Hillary Clinton. Dozens of other celebrities promoted their own content in support of Clinton or Trump in the days leading up to Election Day. Celebrities have a lengthy history of involvement in political life, especially through endorsements. While this election cycle has been different in so many ways, the public endorsements from celebrities are anything but atypical.
Why would a celebrity endorse a candidate? The answer is similar to why people would share their political philosophy on Facebook. With strongly held opinions it can be a compromising to your identity not to make your beliefs public. Additionally, you can expect support from those close to you. Beyoncé and Jay Z know that they will not risk alienation from their main fan base, and there is a potential, however small, that they could change minds. The potential alone is worth the risk to public figures, mainly because the risk is so minimal. The Trump voter that listens to “Lemonade” daily does not exist, or if he or she does, are not enough of Beyoncé’s fan base to pose a threat to her popularity.
Celebrities are also an extension of the candidate and they benefit, in a less optimistic way, from the politician’s fame and fortune. Ads using public figures increase their celebrity to groups that might not have been exposed before. Amy Schumer, although close to a household name, may have been exposed to more Clinton voters than her Comedy Central show allowed. Likewise, Susan Sarandon with Bernie Sanders’ voters or Kirstie Alley with Donald Trump’s. Using politics as a way to improve your legitimacy as a celebrity and boost your credibility and popularity is practical in the entertainment world.
This election is special because Trump was a celebrity before being a politician. More people knew him for his reality television appearances than his business practices, so his ties to the entertainment industry are more direct compared to any candidate since Ronald Reagan. As a public figure, he had a group of people that were fans of him regardless of their political party, which helped him secure those outside of the Republican party. To an extent, this is true of all celebrity endorsements. A celebrity brings to a fan base to a candidate that may be uninterested in the political world, which could be their key bonus. Beyoncé and Jay Z led a get-out-the-vote effort because their core fan base, young people, historically vote less often than other age groups. Trump, in a sense, was his own celebrity endorser. He brought in a group of people familiar with his persona but uninterested in the political process.
But does a celebrity endorsement really change people’s minds? It’s hard to quantify who is voting for a candidate based off of their favorite celebrity, and that is for an obvious reason. Voters are likely to have things in common with celebrities that drive them to vote for the same candidate. A fan of comedian Amy Schumer is already more likely to be a fan of the Democratic candidate because of their shared background and interests.
In the general election, a celebrity’s endorsement is not likely to affect any minds, but in the primary election, there is evidence that certain voices can resonate with voices. Oprah Winfrey famously endorsed President Obama in his 2008 primary battle with Hillary Clinton, which reportedly gave him a million extra votes. In this example, a celebrity endorsement is obviously influential. What makes Winfrey’s endorsement special is obvious — she was an already influential voice in America, particularly amongst a group of voters torn between the two candidates at the time.
The closest parallel to Winfrey in this election was found in the Democratic and Republican primaries. Without a doubt, celebrity endorsements played a role in legitimizing the presidential bids of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, two people originally seen as long-shot outsiders. Celebrity endorsements carry a sense of legitimacy that, alongside the thousands of votes cast, publicize a candidate to prominence.
Each party has their own celebrity faces. If country singer and prominent conservative Ted Nugent endorsed Hillary Clinton, the entire country would be shocked and confused. Likewise, if Lena Dunham, actor and creator of “Girls,” endorsed Donald Trump, some liberals would reconsider their vote. Would either of these celebrities endorse the opposing party’s candidates? Of course not. If Dunham tweeted her support of Trump, I would immediately assume her Twitter was hacked.
These people have a political aspect engraved in their celebrity that makes their endorsements obvious. Certain aspects of both of Dunham and Nugent’s art is based upon social elements that have become political. Growing up in the country or living in New York City has a political association that these famous people align with. More importantly, their core audiences are not alienated by an endorsement of a like-minded candidate. Polling and conventional wisdom indicates that the core audiences of liberal celebrities such as Dunham are the same groups that make up the core voting blocks for Clinton. The same is true for conservative celebrities like Nugent and Trump’s core constituency.
In truth, most celebrity endorsements have little to no effect on a candidacy. Killer Mike did not help Bernie Sanders change enough minds to beat Hillary Clinton, but that does not mean celebrities should not endorse candidates. In a less divisive election, the endorsements of public figures can help sway undecided voters, like Winfrey did with Democrats in 2008. Maybe Lena Dunham did not change your mind during the election, but who knows who the next Winfrey is in an election? Endorsements matter, but not this time.