Hillary Clinton was not alone as she raced across the country in the final weeks of the 2016 presidential election. Many times she was joined by a celebrity endorser during the homestretch of the campaign. While President Barack Obama as well as his wife, Michelle, made regular campaign stops in order to support Hillary Clinton and to energize voters, joint appearances between either of the Obamas and Clinton were rare. Instead, Clinton relied on the endorsement and appearance of celebrities such as Katy Perry, Jon Bon Jovi, James Taylor, Beyonce, and Jennifer Lopez. Bruce Springsteen assisted Hillary Clinton in drawing 33,000 people to her rally at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, her largest crowd of the campaign. Clinton’s rallies became both matters of political enthusiasm and musical performance. Numerous other non-musical celebrities made non-rally endorsements of Clinton, giving statements of support to the media, releasing videos via social media, and making pro-Clinton comments at their own shows. Following the election of Donald Trump they decried the results.
These celebrity endorsements became a major narrative the last few weeks of the presidential campaign. Donald Trump regularly ridiculed Hillary Clinton for celebrity appearances at her rallies, declaring he didn’t need celebrities to draw a crowd. Additionally, he claimed that artists such as Jay-Z do not represent America with his profanity-laced music which contains misogynistic lyrics. It was easy to argue that this was simply Trump attacking Hillary Clinton and those celebrities in order to avoid being on the defensive himself. He did not have celebrity endorsements of the same scope or depth as did Hillary Clinton. Furthermore, attacking these celebrities and pointing out that they are not like the supporters at his rallies played right into Trump’s modus operandi and what drew many of his supporters. Donald Trump tells the truth as he sees it, speaking in a way no other politician would dare and challenging others in power. He didn’t need celebrity endorsements because he spoke for himself and could draw support himself.
He was also right. Not about Jay-Z’s profanity, not really. Or about his lyrics. It’s also not about the notion that celebrities are out of touch with the common man and represent all that is wrong with America, a seemingly popular narrative in recent days. Donald Trump uses profanity, has a history of sexism and misogyny, and did have celebrity endorsements himself. Furthermore, he lost the popular vote, so more people than not were obviously not moved to vote for him due to the lyrics of musicians or the lifestyle of actors who endorsed Hillary Clinton. But Donald Trump was correct in that he did not need celebrity endorsements and celebrity appearances at his campaign rallies in order to galvanize support. And that’s really how these endorsements matter.
Celebrity appearances are to energize the electorate and to spur turnout. Appearances from Jay-Z and Beyonce are an at least implicit pitch to young, black voters. Statements from celebrities encouraging Americans to get out and vote raises awareness and interest, especially among younger members of the American electorate. However, they don’t change minds, at least not positively. Celebrity endorsements do have an effect on the voting behavior of the American public, but that effect appears to be contingent on prior political beliefs and attitudes. Recent research from David J. Jackson, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University who studies the influence of celebrities on elections, demonstrates how this effect works. He expounds on this in an interview with Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic. An excerpt of that interview is below.
Spencer Kornhaber: You’ve studied the intersection of politics and celebrity and popular culture for a long time. What were the things to know about the subject going into this election?
David Jackson: Initially my research focused on looking at the effect of celebrity endorsements on beliefs about particular topics. What that research had shown was that celebrities taking political positions that were popular could make those positions more popular, or celebrities taking positions that were unpopular could make those positions less unpopular. But there wasn’t a tremendous amount of data showing moving from agree to disagree or disagree to agree. In other words, a reinforcement.
Bono said some very positive things about George W Bush’s policies on AIDS in Africa. I’d survey young people, and young people weren’t a fan of Bush, but when Bono said something about him, it didn’t make them more likely to agree with it, it just made them less likely to disagree with it. So that’s something.
More recently, I’ve begun looking at endorsements of particular candidates. In a survey we did on likely voters in Ohio in 2015, we asked about a bunch of traditional endorsers—The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The New YorkTimes, UAW, NRA—but a bunch of celebrities as well. The greatest percentage of people said that celebrity endorsements would have no effect. But there were some who said it would make them more or less likely to support a candidate. In every case, if you subtract the less likely from the more, then that effect is negative [on voters’ likelihood to support the endorsed candidate]. The smallest effect is George Clooney, who was only negative by around 9/10ths of a percent. And the two least effective, or more negative, were Ted Nugent and Beyoncé, who became fairly significant towards the end of the campaign.
But in Ted Nugent, if you only look at people who are sympathetic to the Tea Party, [his endorsement] goes from being a negative to a positive. Trace Adkins, a country star who was the winner of The Celebrity Apprentice, if you look at just country and western fans, he becomes positive, whereas overall he’s negative. Oprah Winfrey, among African Americans only, positive effect; over the electorate, overall negative effect.
The suggestion in terms of strategy is that candidates have to deploy their celebrities to the selective, appropriate audience. A lot of the thinking comes from marketing research about celebrity endorsements as well: You want someone who might be influential amongst your target audience if you’re trying to sell ‘em cars or coffee. Same thing is true of if you’re trying to persuade them to vote for a candidate.
Now, towards the end of the campaign, I don’t think Ted Nugent was out there trying to persuade people in Michigan for Trump. Or that Beyoncé, Bon Jovi, Springsteen, Jay Z, Katy Perry, that late in the game were trying to persuade people. They were trying to energize people to go out and vote. And that was quite an uphill battle for the Clinton campaign to begin with, because the energy and enthusiasm gap was in favor of Trump.
If Beyonce or Amy Schumer or Bruce Springsteen or Katy Perry influenced a vote for Hillary Clinton it was most likely because that person already liked Hillary Clinton. Celebrities may have been able to energize some Democratic voters and persuade them to get out on November 8th and cast a ballot, but it is unlikely they changed any minds. As detailed by Jackson, the overall effect on the electorate is negative and positive for select audiences. This is not to say that celebrity endorsements of Hillary Clinton caused people to vote for Donald Trump, but it may have provided additional motive to vote among those who already supported him. Many of those listening to Donald Trump trash Jay-Z’s lyrics and say celebrities were out of touch with regular Americans were already prone to believe this perspective. They were not convinced, they were reinforced. Just as Hillary Clinton supporters were reinforced in their belief that Donald Trump was a terrible person who as president would be dangerous for America.
Celebrity endorsements are marketing. They are intended to energize and raise awareness. In these they do their job. However, just as advertisements in many cases they do not change minds. That possibility does remain but it is not necessarily the most likely outcome. Advertisements are affective conditioning. Their job is to make people feel good about the product. If they feel good about the product they are more likely to buy the product. Same principle applies to celebrity endorsements and political candidates. Surround the candidate with celebrities which engender positive emotions and people are more likely to buy the candidate. Except this doesn’t work if those positive emotions are not spurred by the celebrity. In many cases, as Jackson describes, they are not. And as Trump supporters were already more enthusiastic for their candidate than Hillary Clinton supporters were for her, these celebrities were simply attempting to narrow this gap among potential voters who were already apt to vote for Clinton.
Did Jay-Z cost Hillary Clinton the election? No. But he certainly was never going to win her the election either.