Did Celebrity Endorsements Matter in the 2016 Election?
The stars aligned for Hillary Clinton.
In her second shot at the Oval Office, Clinton boasted an incredible roster of actors, artists, TV personalities, and sports stars. And her multi-million dollar campaign leveraged these connections in every possible way.
Clinton raffled off tickets to join Jay Z for dinner. Lady Gaga and Katy Perry performed at her rallies. Joss Whedon directed a pro-Democratic PSA starring Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson. On election day, Beyonce urged followers to vote for Clinton in a video that drew over 2 million views before the polls closed.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, the bench was far from full. Nor was it empty – Donald Trump won over the likes of Charlie Sheen, Kid Rock, Tim Allen, Tom Brady, and Kirstie Allie. But it goes without saying that their combined celebrity clout doesn’t match that of even one of the above Clinton cohorts.
Celebrity endorsements are not new in American politics. But the 2016 presidential election saw more star power all the previous races combined – and that’s including President Obama’s inaugural run in 2008.
Hollywood came out for Clinton. Voters didn’t. So, what happened?
Celebrity endorsements have long played a role in the presidential race. President Warren Harding is often credited with earning the very first celebrity endorsement in American history back in 1920. When actor Al Jolson recorded a catchy campaign tune for Harding, it helped propel him to a safe 60% victory.
The phenomenon seemed to peak in 2008, when Barack Obama gained the blessings of numerous actors and artists, including George Clooney, will.i.am, Brad Pitt, and Samuel L. Jackson. His most important endorsement came from Oprah Winfrey. One study found that Oprah alone increased voter participation by over a million votes.
Why do celebrity endorsements work? Because people consider celebrities more credible and trustworthy than politicians. Less informed voters are more likely to vote for someone with a celebrity endorsement. And young people are more likely to seek out information and participate when celebrities Tweet and post about politics.
There are a number of reasons why it was less effective this time around.
To start, most of Clinton’s celebrities appealed to the voters aged 18 to 24, the demographic that is least likely to get out and vote. Except for 2008 and 1992 (Obama’s first run and the first Rock the Vote campaign respectively), youth participation has declined each year since 1964.
Diminishing returns are another factor. Celebrity endorsements are not novel. Oprah broke her career-long silence on presidential politics when she endorsed Obama in 2008. Her endorsement of Clinton in 2016 did not have the same impact.
Others have pointed to growing cynicism towards celebrities. People know that their interests differ from those of millionaire actors and actresses. There’s a growing perception that so-called “Hollywood Elites” don’t understand or care for the common voter. And people simply don’t trust celebrities like they used to, especially in an age when the Twitterverse waits to pounce on celebrities for any political misstep.
But the biggest factor of all is simply the fact of her opponent.
Star power was baked in to the Trump campaign from day one. Donald Trump seamlessly transferred his TV persona to his political campaign. People knew who he was, what he stood for, and what to expect from him. He cut out the middleman when it came to celebrity endorsements. People didn’t go to Trump rallies to check out Katy Perry – they went to see the man himself.
Trump didn’t need celebrities to get his name out there. He was a walking endorsement himself.
Celebrities can help put the spotlight on an otherwise obscure candidate. In a race between two ordinary politicians, celebrities can help one outshine the other. 2016 was not that kind of race. President Trump stood out inherently, and no number of celebrity endorsements, followers, or viral PSAs could level the playing field.